Atlanta: Ricky Rudd preview

Ricky Rudd: "...Race speeds are down to where we can race pretty good on the track, and you've got multiple grooves there." His fans have questions and Ricky Rudd, driver of the ...

Ricky Rudd: "...Race speeds are down to where we can race pretty good on the track, and you've got multiple grooves there."

His fans have questions and Ricky Rudd, driver of the #21 Motorcraft Racing Ford Taurus, has answers. This week he talks about Atlanta, his weekend off and how tires might or might not have affected a race outcome earlier in the season.

Was it frustrating for the drivers and crews to start the season and then have a weekend off so early? What did you do on your weekend off? "I guess to answer that question, Daytona is pretty intense and there is a lot that goes into Daytona on the team side. For those guys, probably a weekend off right after the Daytona 500 would not be a bad thing. But then it turns out we go to Rockingham, and then a weekend off. I know it probably doesn't make a lot of sense right at the beginning of the schedule, but it does give everybody a pretty good breather because it is pretty intense going into Daytona. So it is good for the crews and drivers. It doesn't really make a huge difference for us. As far as what we did, the weather was so bad in Charlotte, we just played in the snow with Landon because he had a couple of snow days. We actually built a snowman. That was our big event for the weekend. Just relaxing a little bit and not having to be on a tight schedule is pretty nice."

And how much of your success in Atlanta will be based on the quality of your equipment versus your race set-up? "It's partly set-up, but a lot of it has to do with the car itself. I remember going there a couple of years ago with the Yates car; we rolled off the truck fast and we were like fifth fastest in practice. We thought we had a shot at the pole and we did. And, usually when you qualify you drive a little bit deeper into the corner and our car bottomed out pretty hard. And when it bottomed out, it hit the cross member and I spun out in the corner. And, the team didn't think the backup was as good as the primary so they brought a car from home. They worked on it all night. It was built a little differently and they were thinking when they built it this would be a good time to implement all the latest things on this car. The car that was wrecked was a winning car, and the car they brought out ended up being a mid-pack car at best. And a lot of that goes to the aerodynamics of the car itself. It is complex. It sounds like a simple question, but it is a little more complex. It takes a combination of all. You have to have a car that handles good. You have to have the right set-up under it. And you have to have the pit crew doing its job and the driver doing his job. When all those are clicking, with no weak links, then you usually have success."

Do you think with the new tire at a fast track like Atlanta will wear more or less than before, and will that change the set-up notes from last year. "Not necessarily, no. If you've got a tire with less grip, that'll slow the speeds down. The way I understand the new tire, it will be fast for qualifying, but it'll give up as the race goes on and that will slow the speeds down on long runs."

With speeds at Atlanta Motor Speedway approaching and sometimes exceeding 200 mph in recent years, do you feel that modifications should be made to slow the cars for safety? "I would have said something maybe needed to be done back when the track was resurfaced and the pole went up to a 195, 198 mph, whatever it was. The track had a lot of grip and the speeds were very fast. But the track has deteriorated. It has gotten rougher. It's gotten bumpier. It's given up grip. The qualifying speeds are still up, but race speeds are down to where we can race pretty good on the track, and you've got multiple grooves there. So it's not as big an issue as it was when the track was resurfaced. You had a lot of drivers that probably thought maybe we ought to look at doing something to limit the corner speeds five, seven years ago, but that has kind of taken care of itself."

How much has the speed changed in the cars at Atlanta over the years? "It's kind of hard to compare that because the speeds didn't just happen. We didn't just all of a sudden go 20 or 30 miles an hour faster. It just sort of happened over a period of time. You probably would have noticed it more, if you had driven a car there in the early '80's and didn't drive a car there again until the year 2000. Then you would probably notice a big jump. You gain a couple miles an hour each year and then you look back. I remember at Charlotte when the pole speed was like 156 mph. Now, it's a 185, 186 miles an hour at the same track. It's been repaved once or twice since then, but the technology, the horsepower has gotten better. You didn't notice that big change at Charlotte. The pole was a 156, and then it's 158 the next year, and then 160 the year after that. It just slowly builds where you don't notice it. I'm talking about race tracks in general. The old track at Atlanta was sort of the same way. It just got faster and faster. And then they built the new track. It's a different track. It just happens to be sitting in the same location. There really isn't much of an association with the old track. It's totally different."

You raced both of the configurations at Atlanta. Which one do you prefer? And why? "I like the old Atlanta. The corners were a little flatter. The handling at both tracks is very critical, but my personal preference, I just liked the old Atlanta better than the new track. I've been okay there. I've run decent there, but I just liked the old Atlanta where the corners were flatter and it drove more like a shorter track."

Is Atlanta Motor speedway one of you favorite speedways, and is Atlanta one of the easier tracks on the circuit? "I won one race on the old Atlanta configuration. But it is not one of the tracks that stands out in my mind as one of the tracks that I think I just can't wait to get there because we are really, really going to do great things there. I think drivers tend to have favorite tracks where they do consistently well. Atlanta hasn't been a track for me that we've done consistently well. We've been more hit or miss. So for that reason alone, it's probably not one of my favorite tracks. It's not the worst either, but it's not one of the favorites."

With the amount of driving experience that you bring to a team, how much of an advantage is it to your team as far as your input on setting up the car? Do you have your own personal notes (as a driver and former team owner) on each track that helps you? "I've got old notebooks from when I had our team. But notebooks get outdated pretty quickly. They're good for a year, but that is about it. The NASCAR rules change and new tires come along. Those set-ups migrate pretty quickly. It doesn't take long for that to happen. I think an experienced driver, going back a couple years, was a big asset-- before the computer systems and the technicians got to be as good as what they are. They are very good at what they do, and they don't have to rely on driver feedback as much as they used to. That is probably the biggest thing that experience does for you. A driver with experience at any given race track can pretty much hone in on what it takes to make the car better. None of these cars ever handle perfectly. They are always a work in progress. There is always something you can do to make it better so that experience is usually a plus. It's not as critical as it once was and that's strictly because the computer guys and technicians have gotten so good at reading the data, and so on. But experienced drivers can generally add more of a heads up during the race because they know the characteristics of the different race tracks. It used to be a big asset. The younger drivers are doing very well, but generally they have a very good spotter or a previous driver that can help keep them under control simply because they haven't run enough races to know what they can get by with at the different race tracks. They know how to drive very good and very fast, but then sometimes the thought process the experienced driver has can be an advantage. I think when you see a young driver doing very well you will see somebody with experience talking to them through the race and keeping them calmed down a little bit, be it a Ray Evernham or Bill Elliott watching them to make sure they don't make the rookie mistakes."

Two weeks in a row you got caught in the pits by a yellow flag. Do you think this type of thing is going to continue most of the season because of the new tires? "Well, we did have some bad misfortune. We had a plan and stuck to it at the beginning of the race. And it bit us. At Daytona we elected not to pit when the first caution came out and then it went back green. And that eight-lap difference in the window there made the difference. We got caught out of sync and we pitted, and we got a lap down. It was sort of a freakish deal more than anything else. It wasn't really bad pit strategy. As it turned out it just wasn't the right strategy the way the circumstances unfolded. I don't really see it being a trend. We had everything last year go just about perfect that could happen in the pits, and I guess we were due for some opportunities to get caught in a bad situation. And it finally caught up with us at Daytona and at Rockingham. As far as it affecting the outcome of the race, we probably would have been a lead-lap car because we never got passed on the track, lapwise. So we probably would have been in the lead lap at Rockingham and that would have put us in the top six or seven. At the least, we would have been one lap down, and that would have put you in the top nine. And, at Daytona we ran with the group that finished ninth, tenth and 11th all day. We just couldn't get that lap back. So it hasn't been great and we definitely have to improve on performance, but we've still got a long way to go. We're only three races in."

Please explain how you lost two laps at Rockingham and stayed two laps down. You didn't get your laps back when you stayed on the track while others pitted during green, and then another accident happened. Shouldn't that have put you back on the lead lap? "Had two or three more guys pitted we would have gotten our laps back. It was just the way that caution flag fell. There was a lot of controversy about that, but the bottom line, it was just the way people were on the track when that flag came out."


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Ray Evernham