Rudd returns in 2002 with his eye on the Winston Cup
Friday marked the fifth and final day of the 2002 UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour hosted by Lowe's Motor Speedway. On final day the tour, members of the racing media met three different racing organizations featuring nine drivers.
The first event of the day was breakfast hosted by UPS, Texaco and Robert Yates Racing. RYR drivers Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd were on hand to speak to the media.
Rudd is coming off of one of his best seasons in his career. In 2001, he finally returned to victory lane after a two-year winless streak, winning two races. He was second in the points standing for much of the last part of the season, struggled in the final two races of the season and ended up 4th in the point standings to 2001 series champion Jeff Gordon.
"We're excited about the season. We feel like we have a championship team. We competed for the championship last year for three quarters of the year. We worked on our weaknesses during the winter and hopefully we filled in the gaps."
Rudd had off-season back surgery that kept him out of the driver seat for the recent test session at Daytona.
"I had a forced vacation and it's probably the best December that I've ever had. I had a back operation and I am just now getting back to 100 percent. I'm rested and I'm ready to go. The first time I get in the car will be during the normal test days at Daytona. I may get my shifter cart out and take it to Jacksonville on the way to Daytona, but I want to be sure I'm healed"
Dale Jarrett also had a good year season in 2001, though not quite as successful as his 1999 championship run. Jarrett had four victories, 12 top-5's and 19 top-10's as well as five poles. While he led the points for much of the early part of the season, Jarrett suffered some setbacks, finishing 30th or worse in four out of six races during the middle part of the season, and finished 5th in the final points standings
still not driving the Big Brown Truck, but Jarrett will
once again contend for the championship.
"Certainly we had some problems in 2001," Jarrett said. "It started out a lot better than it finished. Some of that resulted from rules changes, but some of it was just plain bad luck. Part of the problem in 2001 was due to aero problems and changes in the rules. We did most of our testing in 2001 using the bump stops in the front of the car. About mid May we weren't allowed to run the bump stops anymore, so all the information we gathered the first half of the season went out the window."
"We were disappointed with a fifth-place points finish which means that we have the right goals. Once you win a championship nothing else is good enough."
Jarrett's team has a new crew chief this season, as Jimmy Elledge comes on board, replacing last year's crew chief, Todd Parrott. Parrott will now assume the role of team manager.
"This is a positive move for the #88 team," Jarrett said. "Todd gives everything he has to this team and will continue to do so in his new role. Jimmy is another piece of the puzzle that will help us compete with the guys who finished in front of us this year. Jimmy reminds me of a young Todd Parrott who will bring fresh, new ideas to the team."
Jarrett participated in the recent test sessions at Daytona, and he is just one of a chorus of Ford drivers who say they are at a definite disadvantage.
"It's back to the way it was in 1999 and 2000 (at Daytona). I think the cars are running too slow. We've been running slow the last few years and people have still turned over, so the slower speeds haven't helped that. I'd like to see the cars go faster and then the handling would come more into play."
just 30 years old, Gordon already has 4 championships.
The tour's next stop was Hendrick Motorsports, located just a few miles from Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, NC. The Hendrick Motorsports complex features a large museum that features exhibits, photographs, showcars, and dozens of awards and trophies. The press conference, held in the museum, was one of the few held on the tour that attracted fans as well the media. All four Hendrick Motorsports drivers were on hand to address the members of the media.
2002 series champion Jeff Gordon is looking to expand on his fourth championship win, and make a run at the record of seven championships currently held by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
"We want to carry over the momentum from 2001 and build on our success." Gordon said, "I see this as still a very young team, and we need to continue to come together...I don't know anybody that doesn't want to be on top of their sport as often as they can. I am passionate about this sport. I've enjoyed seeing it grow and being a small part of it."
many more Winston Cup trophys will Jeff Gordon win for
Hendricks Motorsports, it's an awfully big room.
"Our goal going into every season in to win another championship. I know the resources are here, the backing is here, and we can win a lot of championships. Right now, we're just going to go for (championship) number 5 and if that ever happens, then we'll go for six."
Gordon was 11th fastest in the recent test session at Daytona, the second fastest among Hendrick Motorsports drivers. Gordon says new the aero package is very different from what was used last season.
"I believe what we've seen is that we've gone from one extreme to the next. From what I saw, it takes us back to what it was like in maybe '99 or 2000." Gordon said, "It was much tougher to make a pass, it took several laps to make it happen. There was a lot of things that you had to do to move the air around and to burst that bubble and use other cars around you to get the momentum to make passes."
"I think there's probably a few things that NASCAR might be able to do, maybe give us a little more power or a bigger restrictor plate. I think it will certainly will be a whole lot different than what he had last year."
Gordon will play a dual role this season, as driver of the #24 Dupont Chevrolet, and co-owner of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet driven by rookie-of-the-year contender Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson made three starts in the Winston Cup series last season while running in the Busch Series, in preparation a full Winston Cup season in 2002. Johnson will be competing for rookie-of-the-year against Penske Racing driver Ryan Newman.
"The rookie title is something that's out there for us, but we're looking at more realistic goals, things that we can control immediately," Johnson said. "We need to start by qualifying for those first four events."
Although they are both rookies, Johnson believes Newman might have an edge during the first half of the season.
"The first four events are going to be nail-biters for us, we don't have any points to fall back on for provisionals, Ryan (Newman) is in a unique situation where is has the #12 car points. If we go out there and make races and finish on the lead lap and grow and mature as a team, I feel come the end of the year hopefully we'll have some top 5's and hopefully a win. But first we're going to pay attention to what we can control."
Terry Labonte, driver of the #5 Kellogg's Chevrolet, struggled during much of last season. Labonte, the 1996 series champion, finished the 2002 season 23rd in points, with no wins, one top-5 and two top-10's. Now entering his 25th season in NASCAR in the midst of a two-year winless streak, Labonte's finish in the point standings was the lowest he has finished in his Winston Cup career. Now, with a new crew chief, Jim Long, Labonte believes he's not only capable of winning races again, but maybe even another championship.
"If we get this team back the way it needs to be, there's no doubt in my mind that we can win another championship and win races," Labonte said. "The addition of Jim Long goes a long way toward meeting those goals. I know we can do it because we've done it before."
"Last year, I felt we were so close so many times. If a couple of races would've gone different for us and we would have won, it would have been a whole different outcome for the year. But things didn't go our way, things didn't work out. We had the opportunity to hire Jim (Long) and we've been real excited about it."
"I'm really pleased with everything that we have and all the resources that we have. I can't brag enough about the group of guys that I have on the 5 car," said Jim Long. " With the resources here at Hendrick Motorsports, it's a dream come true for me for me. With a guy like Terry, a two-time champion, it's going to make quite a beautiful season.
Jerry Nadeau is hoping 2002 is his breakout year. Nadeau finished the 2001 season 17th in the points, with four top-5's and ten top-10's. Although he had no wins last season, he came within a half a lap of winning at Atlanta in November before running out of gas. Now entering his fifth full year in the Winston Cup series, Nadeau has great expectations for 2002.
"Ever since coming here I think the resources with Terry (Labonte) and Jeff (Gordon) has been great, and now with Jimmie it'll be even better." Nadeau said. "I had never had those resources before I came here. We look forward to starting this year like we ended last year. We had a lot of chances to win races and we had one thing or another go wrong."
"For us to win our first race a year-and-a-half after my first year here says a lot about where this team is headed. I think we're going to show a lot more maturity as a team and a lot more consistency than what we've show as a past."
Car owner Rick Hendrick now has the task of trying to help four races teams work together.
"My job is to identify weaknesses. The successful things just happen by themselves." Hendrick said, "We want to identify problems and work on fixing them. I'm kind of the rotor-rooter man in that I clean up the mess."
Although Gordon's team fared better last season than Labonte's or Nadeau's, Hendrick says he shows no favoritism toward any of his teams.
"It takes to much time to change things to make any one team any better than the others. Terry (Labonte) and Jerry (Nadeau) don't believe that their stuff isn't as good as the other guys. As long as I've been in racing, I've never had anybody tell me that they thought their stuff wasn't as good as the other guys. All I can do is do what I can do about identifying the weaknesses. I think it's all about chemistry and clicking and working together. Jeff Gordon had the same stuff in 2000 and 2001 that everyone else had, the difference was the chemistry in that team."
When Hendrick was asked about the complaints from the Ford teams that they needed changes to compete with the Chevrolet's, Hendrick pulled out a handkerchief and pretended to wipe tears from his eyes.
"In 2000 I believe we had the same rules, and in 2002 those Fords waxed us big time." Hendrick said. "It's the same body style from 2000, I don't know what the difference is. But I guarantee you those Fords will be running when it counts."
The final stop of the day was Richard Childress Racing in Welcome, NC. RCR enters 2002 as a three-car team, with Jeff Green and AOL coming on board the #30 Chevrolet. The #31 car also has a new driver, Robby Gordon. But or course all attention this year will be squarely focused on 2001 Rookie Of The Year and Busch Series Champion, Kevin
"We had a great year last year and won the rookie of the year," Harvick said. "As an organization, I think we are stronger. Our cars are better, our engines are better, and I know I'm better. I don't think we all realized what we did last year. It's a special feeling for myself and all the guys. I won't have twice as many chances to get in trouble this year."
Earnhardt gone, Harvick heads the roster for Childress.
Harvick was slated to run a full season in the Busch Series last year, and run up to five races in Winston Cup in preparation for a possible full ride in 2002. The tragic death of Dale Earnhardt in last year's Daytona 500 changed all that, and Harvick was chosen to fill the void. He won his first Winston Cup race in just his third start, and went on to capture one more win later in the season. He finished ninth in the 2001 points standings, despite running one less race than the other drivers in the top ten.
This will be his first Daytona 500.
"It'll be an interesting Speedweeks for me, it'll be a fist time for a lot of things," Harvick said. "I'm really looking forward to running in the Daytona 500."
Jeff Green is the veteran on this team, having competed in the Winston Cup series before. When Harvick moved up to Winston Cup, Green was hired to drive the #30 AOL Chevy that Harvick was slated to drive.
"I've raced the last three Daytona races in the Busch cars, the rules are pretty much the same as they are now with the Winston Cup cars," Green said. "These other drivers sitting here they're professionals, they catch on pretty quick."
"The best thing about it, I've got two teammates in the Daytona 500 and we can help each other. That's going to be the key. Not just the Daytona 500, but the other 34 or 35 races we run this year. We got some great opportunities to win races, and that's what's exciting for RCR and for me as a driver."
Robby Gordon has had his share of frustration in the Winston Cup series. His first full time ride with Felix Sabates in 1997 ended after just 20 races. Gordon tried his hand in a few CART and IRL efforts which included a 4th place finish in the 1999 Indianapolis 500 before returning to Winston Cup with his own team in 2000. He signed a multi-year deal with Morgan-McClure Motorsports for the 2001 season, but that relationship ended after just five races. He ran 12 more races later in the season for several teams, including seven races for Richard Childress, replacing Mike Skinner. He won his first race in the final race of the season at New Hampshire.
His new full time ride with Richard Childress Racing seems like a good fit for Gordon.
"For me, having a crew chief like Gil Martin and Richard Childress Racing and all these guys behind me, it is going to be a great year for me." Gordon said, "Richard gives us all the resources we need to compete. I have three teammates and I am going to help them and I hope they'll help me. I'd rather race three cars than 43."
Childress was another Chevrolet team owner who responded to the criticism from the Ford teams that the Ford is at a disadvantage at Daytona. Although the fastest RCR car was only 14th fastest among the cars testing at Daytona, Childress believes all three teams will be ready.
"The rules are like they were in 2000, the Ford was the dominant car in the 2000 Daytona 500, "Childress said. "They were strong all day. I don't see why we wouldn't be strong. I think we got three great opportunities to win the Daytona 500 and that's what I'm excited about."
"We're a little disappointed in some of the numbers during the recent test, but we feel when we go back we'll have a little stronger program. Our engine department, our fab shop - everyone's just working real hard to get this season started off right. Daytona usually helps set the tone. Everyone here knows the goal of RCR and that's to win the championship. At the end of the day - any of these three drivers could be a champion."
Earnhardt's death is sure to stir up a lot of emotions when the team returns to Daytona, especially for Richard Childress, who worked with Earnhardt since 1981.
"It's going to be an emotional trip," admits Childress. "It was emotional going back there for the test, but we have to go forward, have to take a deep breath and go forward. While we were at Daytona, pulling through the tunnel I had thoughts, landing the plane I had thoughts. Those thoughts are going to be there. I don't really know what to say."
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RCR also took time out from Friday's press conference to unveil two new paint scheme's Kevin Harvick will be running in the Winston Cup and Busch Series races at Bristol in March of 2002.
The two paint schemes will help commemorate the 20th anniversary of the movie "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial".
"RCR, Action Performance, and GM Goodwrench Service have been a part of many special-paint promotions, but the E.T. 20th Anniversary is particularly noteworthy because of the film's place in history." Childress said, "That's why we consider it an honor to mark the 20th anniversary of E.T. along with our corporate partners in both the Busch and Winston Cup events."
"Richard Childress and I are thrilled to be involved in this program," Harvick said. "It will be double excitement for me, and the fans will get two chances to see E.T. at one of NASCAR's most exciting tracks."
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