Make The Deal

As journalists, we’re supposed to be fair and impartial. No favoritism in our writing, “just the facts, ma’am.”

But then this is a column format, so I’m going to go ahead and express my feelings anyway.

I’m a fan of NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing, and I’m a fan of every driver out there. Anybody who races at high speeds in big packs of cars like that and has nerves of steel, well, they get kudos in my book.

But there are those drivers with whom I’ve developed a great deal of respect and admiration for, and those who have become some of my favorite interviews. Ricky Rudd is one of those.

Aw, what the heck, I’m a fan of Ricky’s, and I’m proud to say that I am. He’s the first Winston Cup driver that I ever interviewed – back to my first year in the sport in 1994, at Darlington – and he got to the point where he recognized me and knows me on a first-name basis. I can say that about a few drivers, but not all.

That’s why all of this hullabaloo surrounding Ricky and his situation for next year is particularly unsettling for me. I’m just about as anxious to see where Ricky’s going to end up as anyone else, with the exception of maybe himself and his family.

Just when I thought he had finally gotten into a situation at Robert Yates Racing where he could win a long-awaited Winston Cup championship – one I believe he so richly deserves – all of this garbage is happening. And now it more than appears that Ricky will be driving another car for another team next season, if he drives at all.

On Monday, Ricky and team owner Robert Yates all but said that Ricky’s chances to return to the No. 28 Havoline Ford are “slim” at best. Both tried to play the money part of it off and say that it had little to do with that, but come on, I think we all know better.

With Ricky approaching the age of 46 and not wanting to sign more than a one-year deal with anybody, it’s apparent that Yates doesn’t want to commit a huge salary to Ricky. Yates said that he can’t afford to pay Ricky what he’s asking for, and we’re all under the assumption that has something to do with the fact that Havoline’s sponsorship deal isn’t as lucrative as UPS’ deal is with the No. 88 team, with driver Dale Jarrett.

Hogwash. If Yates wanted to keep Ricky, who has won three races and hasn’t finished outside the Top 5 in the points since he signed on with RYR, then Yates would find a way to keep Ricky happy. Money has nothing to do with it, and everything to do with it.

Ricky said Monday that the main sticking point was that, should he stay at RYR, his No. 28 Havoline Ford team would not be the same as it is now. Key personnel, including crew chief Michael “Fatback” McSwain, would be moved around to make room for a third Winston Cup team at RYR.

Reports have it that M&Ms is coming over and bringing its millions to the organization, and that McSwain would be paired up next season with Elliott Sadler, who is all but inside the door at RYR.

Ricky brought McSwain over to RYR from his own team, which he gave up before coming to Yates himself prior to the 2000 season. Those two have formed a great bond, and they’ve formed a very successful and winning combination, so it’s easy to see why Ricky’s upset over that.

Ricky has worked with several crew chiefs in the past, especially when he owned his own team, and the prospect of having to start all over again at the age of 46 is more than a bit unsettling, I’m sure.

There may be problems within the Yates organization and now a diminishing amount of respect between Ricky and Yates, but let’s face it. What’s the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” I think that certainly applies here.

So, Ricky has got his options laid in front of him now. He’s still a hot commodity as far as Winston Cup drivers go, although a lot of teams are opting these days for the “young guns” of the sport. It’s apparent that Ricky can still drive a racecar, and whoever lands him will have a championship-caliber driver. He’s seventh in the Winston Cup points standings right now and is not entirely out of the championship picture yet this year, although this entire situation has got to be a tremendous distraction.

One of Ricky’s options for the future would be to go over to Andy Petree Racing with the new Petree/Jerry Jones team. Word has it that deal is signed and will be announced within the next three weeks or so.

That will obviously bring with it a lucrative sponsor and a high-profile team co-owner in Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. It’s certainly an attractive option for Ricky.

Another option for Ricky would be a third team at Chip Ganassi Racing, once again very attractive. In just a couple of short years, Ganassi has molded that organization into championship-caliber. Sterling Marlin is the points leader and has been since the second week of the season. Jimmy Spencer’s No. 41 Target team has shown flashes of brilliance this year and appears to be on its way up.

Should Ganassi land a solid sponsor for a third team, then I’m sure he’d love to have Ricky in the fold, and I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing that happen.

Yet another option for Ricky is retirement, and I don’t think he wants to do that yet. I certainly don’t want to see that happen and neither does his fans, but if he doesn’t stay with Yates, then winning a championship before he does retire may seem like an unreachable goal.

Whatever Ricky decides to do, however, I hope the decision is made quickly. It’s driving him nuts, he said. I’m sure it’s driving his family crazy.

As a fan of Ricky’s, the situation is not doing much for me either these days.

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