Rudd preparing better for 1999 season By Shawn A. Akers MOORESVILLE, N.C. Finishing 22nd in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings this past season didn't come as a complete surprise to veteran Ricky Rudd. As a matter of fact, with the changeover from the Thunderbird to the Taurus prior to the start of the year, the driver of the No. 10 Tide Ford might have even expected it. He certainly didn't things things would be easy in 1998, and he was right. Although he did manage to win a race (at Martinsville late in the year) to extend his streak of consecutive seasons with at least one victory in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series to 16, it would be Rudd's only top-five finish in a dismal and frustrating year. In fact, he managed only five top-10 finishes in 33 starts.

Last season's results were a far, far cry from what Rudd is accustomed to. In 22 full seasons on the circuit, he has finished outside the top-10 only four times, including the past two years. His string of eight consecutive top-10 finishes in the points was interrupted a year ago, when he finished 17th.

His position at the end of last season, however, is about as far down as Rudd wants to go in the standings. It's about time, he said, to head back to where he feels he belongs -- in the top-10. Rudd hopes that he and his team have made provisions during this offseason to do just that in 1999.

"It's really frustrating to have dropped down this far in just a short period of time," Rudd said. "I'm not totally shocked about what happened last year. We definitely had some weak points, and basically, we started the year way behind because we weren't prepared with the Tauruses.

"You can sit there and trace the history and find out just where things started going downhill. We had some crew chief changes along the way, and basically we've come out of the box a new team every year since we started this thing. We finished well in the points the first three years and we weren't supposed to be able to do that, especially with just a one-car team, but we've lost a lot of employees over the last couple of years, and we've been starting from scratch. That's part of the reason why we haven't run so spectacular here as of late."

Rudd Performance Motorsports has switched over from Pro Motors to Penske Engines for the 1999 season, a move that Rudd sees as a step in the right direction. He has also hired a new engineer in Hoyt Overbaugh and a new shop foreman in Pete Peterson (the former crew chief at Mattei Motorsports for Geoffrey Bodine), additions that Rudd said should help get his team back toward the top of the standings.

Another plus for RPM is the fact that crew chief Bill Ingle, who came on board early in the season in 1998, will be back for another year. That kind of stability is something Rudd's team hasn't had in the past, and it's helped the team get ready for the upcoming season a lot quicker than in years past.

"We're definitely prepared much better this year, as are most of the other Ford teams," Rudd said. "We're sitting here with 12, 14 cars ready to go, and out of those cars we've got some that I consider to be winning cars and some that I consider to be mediocre cars.

"A drastic improvement is going to happen by accident. We have to make it happen. We've got some strong points, like our short-track program, and we've analyzed our weaknesses and made some adjustments. We've stepped up our R&D program a bit, and we've stepped up our commitment to make this a much better race team."

Rudd said the No. 10 Tide Ford team will test at California at the beginning of January before heading down to Daytona International Speedway for a two-day test session on Jan. 12th and 13th in preparation for the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.

Heading into his 23rd full season, Rudd has never won the "Great American Race." But if his team can improve as much as he hopes, anything can happen at Daytona.

"It's such a big race, and I know that I would really love to get to Victory Lane there," Rudd said. "Anything's possible. Dale (Earnhardt) got his first one last year, and we'd like to get us one, too. That would definitely get us off to a great start for '99."

Source: NASCAR Online