Rudd Backs Out Of Testing

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Ricky Rudd didn’t need to have back surgery. He could have put up with the pain, clenching his teeth over every bump in the asphalt and concrete world of NASCAR Winston Cup racing.

But Rudd didn’t have back surgery in early December for racing. He didn’t do it because his car owner, Robert Yates, wanted him to. He didn’t do it because his crew chief, Fatback McSwain, wanted him to.

He did it for Landon Lee Rudd.

“I had it for six months,” Rudd said of his back pain. “It started in May, and when the season ended it wasn’t any worse, but it certainly wasn’t any better. The difficult thing is that I probably could have lived with it for racing, even though it was pretty unbearable, but the worst thing of all is that I’ve got a 7-year-old at home.

“We like to go out and ride four-wheelers and do those kind of things dads do with their kids, and I couldn’t do that. This was probably more of a decision so I could do those things as much as it was for racing.”

That kind of puts Rudd’s priorities in perspective, doesn’t it?

Of course, Rudd’s arthroscopic surgery has some benefits in racing. You won’t see them this week, as Rudd is sitting out testing to continue resting his back. But down the road, Rudd will be more comfortable in the car.

“I feel 100 percent, but I’m kind of following doctor’s orders,” Rudd said. “He wanted me to stay off the race track as much as I could before the season gets cranked up, and hopefully I won’t ever have a recurrence of that injury. I’m just giving myself some time so I can be back in the car at Daytona.”

Andy Hillenburg is testing Rudd’s No. 28 this week, but Yates said Rudd could race now if it were time to. Hillenburg was 17th on Tuesday, but Rudd said he isn’t missing much by sitting out.

“With no disrespect to Andy Hillenburg, I think he’s one of the best there is at Daytona, but this isn’t a place you can really warm up to,” Rudd said. “It’s pretty uneventful here running laps by yourself. It’s sort of a yawner. You’re really not missing anything because it’s not like it sharpens your skills.

“If I would get hurt anywhere, it would be a lack of testing at some of the shorter tracks or intermediate tracks. Hopefully, by the time we get through Daytona we’ll be OK. Rockingham is a track I can run in my sleep because I’ve been around there so many times. I don’t feel like we’ll pay any price at all. I think getting me 100 percent healthy is a lot more important than being out there this week making laps.”

Rudd had some cartilage removed from his lower vertebra in December. It’s almost painful to hear Rudd talk about the surgery.

“There’s a 10-mile long medical definition of what (the surgery) is, but basically it’s a small incision in your back, and then they go in with a fiber optic microscope,” Rudd said. “In the old days, if you had this operation you’d probably have a 6-inch slit in your back, but all I’ve got is about a half-inch scar. They still use hand tools, but it’s all done by microsurgery.

“The thing that sold me on this surgery was that when I walked in I was hurting, but four hours later I walked out and wasn’t hurting. I had a little bit of muscle tightness, but I could have gotten in a race car that afternoon if I had to – it felt that good.”

Rudd wasn’t sure exactly when or how he hurt it, but he knew something was wrong after waking up with pain one morning.

“I wish I could say I hit the fence or I wrecked and had an injury, but it wasn’t that type of a deal,” Rudd said. “I just woke up one morning with a bad, bad backache and figured I just slept on it wrong. Well, six months later it was still there and wasn’t getting any better. It was hard for me to straighten up. I found out that the most comfortable place to sleep was on a hardwood floor, so it was kind of awkward. It was time to get it fixed.

“The doctors had been watching it for about six months. They weren’t cut happy, but it got to the point where I had to make a decision to either try and rehab it or get it cut. The surgery has a 93 percent success rate, so I decided to roll the dice. It really wasn’t much of a dice roll, but it worked, and I’m fortunate that it paid off.”

Landon Lee is fortunate, too, that he’ll have his dad to play with some more.

An Honor for Hillenburg
Hillenburg said he was honored when Yates called him to sub for Rudd, even if it was only for testing.

“I always knew I’d get to drive for Robert Yates at Daytona some day,” Hillenburg said “It’s just January instead of February. … My main job is to make sure they get a lot of information for different circumstances and try to help them so they can come down here and try to win the race in February.

“I have not driven very good equipment for quite a while now, and it’s pretty neat to be back in good stuff. I’m having a great time. It’s great to be at Daytona, and to be along with somebody like Robert and all of his guys is great.”

Hillenburg, a part-time stock-car driver who also has a sprint-car background, has tested for Rudd before, back when Rudd owned his own team.

“When I had my own car, these tracks weren’t particularly kind to me for a long time so I hired Andy Hillenburg to do a lot of test driving,” Rudd said. “That’s when we started qualifying on the front row, so he’s got really good feedback. With that comes some other things like different body work and so on, but I have a tremendous amount of confidence in Andy Hillenburg. If I was concerned, I would be over there watching everything he did, but he’s a tremendous test driver and tremendous race-car driver. We’re lucky we’ve got him.”

Hillenburg was the fastest Ford on Tuesday and was the second-fastest in Wednesday’s session he struggled, posting the 14th fastest speed at 181.371.

Mayfield the Fastest on Wednesday

Jeremy Mayfield ran the week’s fastest test speed Wednesday afternoon, going 183.221 mph in his Evernham Motorsports Dodge. That’s still slower than five drivers who posted speeds last week. There is one more day of testing scheduled for Thursday, a rain date.

Defending Daytona 500 Michael Waltrip was second fastest on Wednesday, turning a lap of 183.102. Casey Atwood was third in another Evernham Dodge, going 183.091. Mike Wallace, in Andy Petree’s unsponsored Chevy, was quick again, going 182.678 mph for the fourth-best speed. Winston Cup rookie of the year Kevin Harvick was fifth at 182.338.

“We’re doing all we can do, testing what we’ve got,” said Sammy Johns, Mayfield’s crew chief. “They ran faster down here last week, so we’ve still got to pick up some. We’re not playing games. We’re just testing what we need to test.

“We can get some more. It’s just going to take some working on it and tuning on it. We’re pretty close to being there right now. The whole race team is excited. Everybody has been working pretty hard at Evernham Motorsports. The whole deal is exciting right now.”

Another Earnhardt at Daytona
Kerry Earnhardt is testing a second Dale Earnhardt Inc. car this week, driving a No. 81 Chevy. Earnhardt, though, is simply testing a car for the No. 1 team, and there are no plans to enter the Daytona 500 because Earnhardt said he’s not ready.

“No, not yet,” Earnhardt said. “I got in the Busch Series before and struggled a little bit. I stepped back a minute and went and talked to dad and Teresa, and we decided to do a deal with the ARCA series. That’s been a big help to me. It brought me along through my learning curve. It taught me patience on the track and how to work with the guys on the crew. I’m now taking that one step further into the Busch Series and get more experience and more of a comfort level before we go into Cup.”

Earnhardt will drive in at least 20 Busch Series races for FitzBradshaw Racing and will get to compete against brother Dale Jr. in the EAS/GNC Live Well 300 at Daytona next month. Perhaps Kerry will drive in some Winston Cup races later in the year if he’s “ready” and “comfortable.”

“There’s no plans, but if things go along smoothly, we have the potential to do that,” Earnhardt said.

Things went pretty well Wednesday morning, as Earnhardt was seventh-fastest at 182.216 mph.

Pressley Hopes to be Fast in Melling Dodge
Melling Racing lost its driver, crew chief and sponsor after the 2001 season, but the team is in Daytona, plugging away for next month’s race. Robert Pressley will drive the No. 92 Dodge in a one-race deal at Daytona, but that’s about it.

Pressley, who will compete full time in the Craftsman Truck Series this year, has stepped into a good car at NASCAR’s superspeedways. Stacy Compton swept both poles at Talladega last year in this car and qualified second and third at Daytona. The team’s best finish last season was 10th in the Daytona 500.

“Everything is going good right now,” said Pressley, who was eighth at 182.160 mph Wednesday. “I’ve got a great opportunity to drive for Mark Melling and the guys. It’s a great team, and they had a great car at Daytona last year. It was an easy decision to come out here.

“We’re looking at the speed totally to get in the Daytona 500, and then we’re looking to race real good. … I feel real good about our chances. They’re trying to pick up a sponsor for the one race, and if we can get up on the (time) sheets, it would be easier.”

Pressley will get plenty of experience this week. After three days of Winston Cup testing, he’ll test his Bobby Hamilton Racing truck for three days beginning Friday.

“It’s kind of nice,” Pressley said of being in Florida. “It’s a little cold up in the Carolina mountains. It’ll be a good little vacation. The main thing is to get in the Daytona 500.”

Wednesday’s Test Speeds (best laps)

John Andretti, 181.170
Casey Atwood, 183.091
Johnny Benson, 181.748
Greg Biffle, 179.795
Kenny Brack, 181.123
Jeff Burton, 179.194
Derrike Cope, 180.484
Kerry Earnhardt, 182.216
Bill Elliott, 181.430
Bobby Gerhart, 179.361
Jeff Green, 181.251
Kevin Harvick, 182.338
Andy Hillenburg, 181.371
Matt Kenseth, 180.339
Bobby Labonte, 181.726
Rick Mast, 179.311
Jeremy Mayfield, 183.221
Jerry Nadeau, 182.256
Ryan Newman, 179.817
Kyle Petty, 179.090
Robert Pressley, 182.160
Shawna Robinson, 181.393
Elliott Sadler, 178.409
Hermie Sadler, 179.179
Jimmy Spencer, 180.970
Tony Stewart, 180.861
Hut Stricklin, 181.243
Mike Wallace, 182.678
Rusty Wallace, 181.452
Michael Waltrip, 183.102

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