Wood Bros. Win War For Rudd

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – And the winner of the Ricky Rudd lottery is ... Wood Brothers Racing.

The epic saga that has become Ricky Rudd’s future in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series this season came to an end on Tuesday afternoon when the Wood Brothers team, a legend in the sport, named Rudd to be the driver of the No. 21 Motorcraft Ford Taurus beginning next season.

The announcement was made at a press conference at the University Hilton Hotel in Charlotte.

The soon-to-be 46-year-old Rudd’s future has been perhaps the most talked about subject around the Winston Cup circles this year. After several months of speculation and rumors, Rudd, who currently drives the No. 28 Robert Yates Ford, decided on the Wood Brothers.

Team co-owner Eddie Wood said the deal all came together within a 24-hour period. The announcement of the press conference was a short-notice deal for the press as well.

In fact, the contracts between the two parties - Rudd and the Wood Brothers team - weren't even signed until after the press conference began.

The deal for Rudd is for three years. Motocraft, the team's sponsor, announced that it had also agreed to a two-year contract extension with the Wood Brothers. The sponsorship contract was to expire at the end of the 2003 season.

"We put this deal together pretty quickly," said Rudd, who had several other opportunities with front-running teams. "I'm really excited about this. First of all, I want to thank all of the car owners that presented me with a chance to drive for them. They were all patient with me and I respect all of them. But driving for the Wood Brothers, this is sort of like a dream come true for me. Growing up in Virginia, I watched that team and told myself that was the team I wanted to drive for. Now it's going to be a reality.

"My number one priority in choosing a team was to find one that could win races and challenge for a championship right out of the box, and I really feel like that could happen here. I want to win races and a championship, and I know this team is hungry and they have that same goal. It's really a family atmosphere here, and that's another thing that attracted me to this team. I'm glad I'm going to be able to finish my career with them."

Earlier in the season, Rudd hinted around at the subject of retirement, but didn’t rule out staying at Robert Yates Racing. When it became apparent that he and Yates wouldn’t be able to come to terms, his name was thrown out for several other rides, including a third car at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Some rumors also had him signing a deal with Andy Petree and Jerry Jones for a new venture next season.

Some publications went as far as to say that Rudd had already signed a deal with Ganassi. That deal appeared to be close to being signed, but it never came to fruition. Rudd’s current sponsor, Havoline, called a press conference for last week to announce its future plans, which apparently had included Ganassi, but that was called off at the last minute.

Some published reports even went as far as to say that Rudd and Ganassi came to blows in Ganassi's office.

"Contrary to everything you might have heard or read, I never even went to Chip's office at all," Rudd said. "I didn't give Chip a right cross in his office. It's just plain and simple, we couldn't come to terms. That's really all there is to it. It was never about money with Chip, and it was never about money with anyone else.

"I will say this: This was the one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make in my life. It's very gratifying to have a lot of teams - a lot of good teams - wanting you to drive for them. I've been on the other end of the stick where I've been sitting at home waiting on the phone to ring. Somehow, it's just better the other way around."

On Sunday, Yates’ team made its long-awaited announcement, at Michigan, when it named Elliott Sadler as the driver and M&Ms as the sponsor of its No. 38 Ford, beginning next season. In essence, Rudd and Sadler are switching places, as Sadler will leave the No. 21 Wood Brothers team, the team he has raced for since coming into the Winston Cup Series full-time, at the end the 2002 season. He announced that back in early May.

"When we first became saddled with the situation of having to find another driver for next year, Ricky was our number one choice," Eddie Wood said. "He was always our number one choice, and we wanted him to drive for us pretty badly.

"We never really had a Plan B (as far as finding another driver for next year). We were going to wait it out to see what Ricky was going to do, and if he decided to go with another team, then we were going to sit down and decide what we were going to do. Fortunately for us, Ricky made us his choice, and we're extremely pleased to have him as part of this team. It's like a dream come true for us."

With Sadler, the Wood Brothers team chose to go with an up-and-coming driver in 1999. This time around, crew chief Pat Tryson said, the team wanted a veteran.

"It's all about experience, and Ricky's got it," Tryson said. "All you have to do is look at his record, and you can see he's won everywhere he's been. With Ricky behind the wheel, and with the support we're getting from Motorcraft and from Roush Racing, we feel confident that we can become an instant contender week-in and week-out."

Rudd is currently sixth in the Winston Cup standings, 168 points behind leader Sterling Marlin. Sadler is 24th in the standings, 858 points behind Marlin with two top-five and five top-10 finishes this season.

Rudd is a native Virginian. The Wood Brothers team is based in Stuart, Va.

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