NASCAR'S "Ironman" To Step Back in '06

by Pete McCole

November 9, 2005

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After 30 years of racing, NASCAR’s “Ironman”, Ricky Rudd, announced his plans to step back from full-time competition in 2006.

In a statement posted on his website on Tuesday, Rudd, the holder of the longest active string of consecutive starts - 786 dating back to 1981 – said he has decided to “take a break from racing for a time.”

“I have not taken a vacation or sick day in nearly 30 years of racing, and with my contract with the Wood Brothers expiring at the end of this race season, it seemed like the perfect time to step back and take a break,” said Rudd in his statement.

Rudd’s announcement comes just a day after a major driver shuffle involving three teams, including Penske Racing, who were in discussion with Rudd about taking over the no. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger from retiring driver Rusty Wallace.

Penske had signed Kurt Busch to drive the car, but when it appeared Busch would not be able to get out of his contract with Roush Racing before 2007, Rudd was approached about filling the driver’s seat of the no. 2 Dodge for a year.

On Monday, however, Busch was granted his release and will drive for Penske after all, making Rudd’s services unnecessary.

“The opportunity to possibly drive the no. 2 car in 2006 came up only recently,” Rudd said. “I had previously turned down several other opportunities to drive for teams and owners I respect, but the Penske opportunity was unique, and maybe the only offer that would have made me consider changing my plans to step back for a time.

“In my view, however, the way this has worked out is to everyone’s benefit. I get to take the break I was planning to take and the no. 2 team gets to do what is best for them and their sponsors long term. I am happy that I was able to provide them with a good alternative in case Kurt was not able to drive the no. 2 car next year, but quite frankly - for me and my family - the way it has turned out is a much better result.”

While Rudd’s statement clearly indicated his desire to scale back his racing career, it made no mention of retiring.

“I still have the desire and ability to win races, but a little burn out is beginning to set in,” Rudd said. “I may drive a few races next year if someone needs a substitute driver, but its time to ‘freshen up’ and do some things with my family that I have put off for a lot of years.”

The 46-year old Rudd is currently in his third season driving the no. 21 Motorcraft Ford Taurus for the Wood Brothers, and is 21st in the series point’s standings.

Rudd’s streak of consecutive starts began Jan. 11, 1981 at the now-defunct Riverside Int’l Raceway. On May 26, 2002 at the Coca Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, he surpassed Terry Labonte’s previous streak of 656 starts to become NASCAR’s “Ironman”.

In 873 career starts in the Cup Series, Rudd has 23 wins, 194 top-five finishes and 373 top-10s.

Rudd began his career at Rockingham (now North Carolina) Speedway on March 2, 1975, finishing 11th. Two years later, he was named at 1977 rookie of the year.

Rudd enjoyed his best year of competition on 1991, driving for owner Rick Hendrick, finishing runner-up in the championship race behind Dale Earnhardt.

In 1994, Rudd became owner of his own team, Rudd Performance Motorsports. Although Rudd scored the biggest victory of his career as driver/owner, winning the 1997 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Rudd struggled in the standings, failing to notch a victory for the first time since 1982 while finishing as low as 31st in 1999 in his final year as a driver/owner.

In 2000, Rudd signed on with Robert Yates Racing and ran very competitively for the team, finishing fourth in the points standings in 2001.

“If I were to decide never to drive again, I have had a great career,” said Rudd. “My hat is off to NASCAR for making the sport what it is today, but I particularly would like to thank all the great sponsors and car owners who put their trust in me and made my career possible

“I have been privileged to drive for some of the best. I also want to thank all of the talented and dedicated people I have worked with in racing over the years, the crew chiefs and the crew members, who put in so much time and effort to give me competitive cars.”

There was no word from the Wood Brothers on who might replace Rudd. Rudd’s statement made no mention of when he might race in 2007, or for what team, but Rudd still plans to do some racing in 2007.

“I am not going far,” Rudd said. “I will be around.”

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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