Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 21 Motorcraft Taurus, participated in a press conference introducing NASCAR's new Top 10 program. Following are his portions of the Q&A session.
RICKY RUDD - No. 21 Motorcraft Taurus:
THOUGHTS ON THE TOP 10 PROGRAM? "You don't realize how important the top 10 is in the points. I guess I sort of took it for granted over the years because I guess we've finished in the top 10 quite a bit. I think a year or two when I didn't finish in the top 10, all of a sudden you realize how important it is."
HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL TO BE THIRD ON THE ALL-TIME TOP 10 LIST? "It really amazed me. I didn't see the stat until yesterday. It's kind of like a win streak, you kind of take it for granted until it goes away. That's some tremendous company to be in there and, quite frankly, I didn't realize we were third on the list. This is my 28th season on the Winston Cup circuit, so when I looked at this a while ago I said, 'Well, it's like 27 years of points battles.' I think we were there 19 out of 27, but there was like six years I didn't run a full schedule, so there was like two misses throughout my career where we didn't finish in the top 10 in points and ran a full schedule."
IS IT GETTING HARDER TODAY TO FINISH IN THE TOP 10 THAN YEARS AGO? "It certainly isn't getting any easier and a lot of the reasons is because of the depth of the competition now. A good example is Childress. He's got four cars right up there. You used to just have to deal with one of 'em and now you've got to deal with four of 'em. It's the same thing with the DEI cars and the list goes on. With the multiple team setup, now you've just got a whole lot more depth with the competition that you have to deal with. Not that it wasn't competitive 15-20 years ago, it's just that now you've got a whole lot more guys you've got to beat. Somebody was asking me yesterday about whether or not we could win this race. They thought I might be considered a darkhorse, but I looked at the shootout and, if you took Earnhardt, Jr. out of the equation, somebody was gonna win that race and it could have been anyone in that crowd. That's something we haven't seen for like of that competition in quite some time. This is restrictor plate racing. Next week we go to Rockingham and I'll be willing to bet that certainly you may not have 30 cars that can win the race, but you'll probably have a hard time picking out the winner out of maybe 15 cars. It used to be you could pick a handful of guys and one of them would win the race, but you can't do that anymore."
DO YOU LOOK AT THIS AS VALIDATION FOR WHAT YOU'VE DONE IN YOUR CAREER? "I'm a nuts and bolt guy. I just keep working and trying to do the best I can with the equipment we've got to work with. I've been in and out of a lot of teams and I think, probably, my career maybe would have been bigger if I had just stayed in one spot. It's kind of like you get out there drafting, I had a habit of pulling out of line maybe at the wrong time at the wrong place because some of the teams I've been with have been great teams. But a lot of my career, I came up when I was fairly young for quite a while and it was kind of one of those deals where the grass was always greener on the other side. It looks like a better team, so you jump over here and get to this team. I've been fortunate. I've been with a lot of good teams, but I think you've got to stay put there for a while. A lot of that staying put, some of it wasn't necessarily in my control. Some drivers are able to bring things to the table like sponsorship dollars and things of that nature. My rides were pretty much dictated by sponsorship situations, where some of the teams - like I was at DiGard after Darrell (Waltrip) was there. I would have loved to have stayed there a few more years, but it didn't work out. Bobby Allison was hired to come on board and it made sense. At the time I was very inexperienced and we didn't have all the testing and stuff like we have today. I really wasn't ready for that ride at the time when I took it, but that's kind of an example. That ride didn't work out. I was at Childress in '82 and '83 when Richard went from being an independent like Dave Marcis was - to the point where he was gonna hire a driver for the first time, so I stepped into that operation when it was relatively new.
"We had good success, but Richard all of a sudden had the opportunity to hire Dale Earnhardt. So, a lot of those opportunities weren't by my choosing to go to different teams, but I'm pretty proud of the fact that this record was accomplished with a lot of different teams. Usually, you don't see that type of consistency unless you've been with a team for awhile. Generally, you have to go out there and run regularly in the top 10 in points and win some races, so I'm pretty proud of the fact of that record. But as far as me rating this record, I've had my accomplishments along the way. Probably one of the bigger ones for me was being voted into the top 50 all-time greatest NASCAR drivers. I've gotten a lot of personal pride out of a lot of them. As far as the perceived media attention or the public's attention as far as not being one of the true greats of the sport doesn't really concern me. I race for personal pride, I guess, more so than I do for public image."
DO YOU HAVE THE CHANCE TO WIN A TITLE AND FINISH OFF YOUR RESUME? "I'm real excited about what I see with the Wood Brothers. To sit here and predict that we're gonna come out and win a championship this year, that would be kind of far-fetched. I see the first year as a get-to-know-you process and work on your weaknesses and do the best you can to finish in the top 10. If things go really good, I feel like a top-five finish is not out of the question. I'm basing that on what I see in the shop and, also, I like what I see. You almost have to have a plan. I guess I learned this more from an owner than I did a driver. You're here today, but where are you gonna be next year? The sport is constantly changing. What tools do you need in that tool box to get to that next level? I like what I see the Wood Brothers doing. They're going down the high-tech road. We've got a 40 percent scale model wind tunnel program that was run for the last week for the first time. There are probably only a handful of teams in this garage area that have that type of a program, so I like the tools they've got in the toolbox. We won't see immediate results from that, but I like what I see. I'm on with the Wood Brothers for three years and I like what I see shaping up for year two and year three because I know what's going on on the engineering side."
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THIS TRACK? "This track has never been all that super-kind to me over the years. I look back and try to figure out why. I'm certain that I must have something to do with it - maybe the way I drive race cars never really adapted to this race track. I'm not really sure. I think I look at it more is if you look at the history of the Daytona 500, there have been certain teams that have been pretty strong here throughout history. I think you'll find there are only a handful of teams that have been strong in recent years. Some teams really put a lot into this race track. I know when I had my own team, I could have blown my entire budget getting ready for the Daytona 500. You get caught up in the adrenaline as an owner and you would do just that. Those teams, I'm sure, have done that - spent all their money getting ready for Daytona. So I think a lot of it depends on what team you're with at what point in history. A good example is the Larry McClure team - the 4 team with Ernie Irvan and later with Sterling (Marlin). That team had a history of really running strong here and winning races, but then you leave Daytona and maybe they didn't do as well. The good thing to do was if you could time it to get with a team that's been strong here over the years, your chances of winning the 500 probably went up 10 times. Again, I've been with a lot of different teams and I've been with some teams that were strong at Daytona, but maybe you caught 'em on the downswing. I'm not making excuses. I don't really have a whole lot of excuses, other than the fact that I guess this is my 26th Daytona 500 and it's time for me to get it in gear."
YOU PROBABLY HOLD A RECORD HERE YOU DON'T WANT TO HOLD. YOU RAN A RACE HERE WITH YOUR EYES TAPED OPEN, DIDN'T YOU? "Yeah. That doesn't seem like it was that long ago. That was one of those you try to forget, but I remember that weekend. You go your whole career and you finally get a deal that you worked hard to get there. I finally had a chance to drive for Bud Moore, who was one of the legends in the sport. I remember, it was like my first official day on the job and I go out and get myself torn up in the Busch Clash. I flipped end over end. That was a pretty wild ride and then I came out the next day to the race track. They wanted me to spend the night in the hospital I remember that but I told them, 'I'm not spending the night in the hospital, I'm fine.' Finally, my wife, Linda, she said, 'Why don't I help you get out of this hospital bed and we'll walk over and look in the mirror and then you tell me if you're ready to go home tonight.' So I walked over to the mirror and I said, 'Maybe I'll just spend one night.' I came out the next day and it was raining, but the day after that I got on the race track and I thought my career was over. I went down in the corner for the first time back in the car and I couldn't see anything. All of the light went dark. I thought, 'Man, I've got some kind of serious brain injury or something because I can't see.' Then I got looking in the mirror and my eyes were so swelled shut that I thought the duct tape might help me out a little bit. So we got the duct tape and taped the eyelids up and I was perfect after that. I wasn't pretty to begin with, but that definitely didn't help the situation."
HOW DID IT HAPPEN THAT THE FIRST TIME IN A CUP CAR FOR YOU WAS IN A WINSTON CUP RACE? "I think the key to that was we had $25 and a license caught $25 at the time and I had somebody crazy enough to give me their car to try and go out there and drive it - Bill Champion. At that time, you didn't have to have a resume. There was a bumper sticker - 'If you want to race, Daytona is the place.' So we had $25 to buy a license and somebody gave us their car, so here we came. But it was a different time. I came up racing go-karts and motorcycles and had a lot of success at that. I was 18 years old and I had an opportunity to go drive a Winston Cup car. I didn't know who the stars were in this sport. My heroes were the guys in go-kart racing and motorcycle racing, like Bob Hanna and all these type of guys. They were the ones I wanted to be as good as and beat one day, so I had a different set of heroes. But the opportunity came up to go run a Winston Cup car and I didn't have to think twice about it. The go-karts and motorcycles were steppingstones. I knew I was gonna go car racing one day, but I didn't have a clue where I was gonna end up or what type of series. I didn't really appreciate Winston Cup racing until I went and drove my first race. I remember that Rockingham was my first race. We didn't test - none of that - I just basically hopped in the race car and went. I knew I had everybody beat when I was 18 years old and I got to the race track and everybody else was like 30-35. Everybody was walking through the garage with cowboy boots and hats on. I said, 'These are cowboys, they can't drive race cars.' I learned real quick that I had a long educational process in front of me. But, to answer your question, somebody had a car. I wanted to drive. The license was $25 and it was like, 'Why not?'"