DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ricky Rudd admits the obvious: The younger drivers on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series circuit are making it tough on the veterans if not with performance, with the sport's infatuation with youth.
The 46-year-old driver, who's been racing longer than three of the top six drivers from 2002 have been alive, believes experience is what counts in racing.
He doesn't hide his gray hair or the fact that he has won 23 races or finished among the top 10 in points 19 times. But like most veterans, he's grown weary of all the comparisons with racing's new generation.
''Sooner or later the age thing is going to creep into this,'' he said. ''Nobody mentioned it, so I'll bring it up. I'm 46 years old, and somewhere along the line a driver is going to peak, and he's going to go down the other side. So far I haven't peaked. I've got the same desires I've had for so many years, and the seasons I've had in the last three years have been some of the best seasons of my career.
''I'm kind of anxious in the meantime to try to take advantage of what we have going for us while you still have time to get it done.''
Rudd was unceremoniously booted from his ride with Robert Yates Racing and replaced by Elliott Sadler, a young gun with one career win.
Rudd wound up replacing Sadler at Wood Brothers Racing, a team that's been around the racing circuit since 1953. After winning just one race in the past nine years, they were ready for a change. Rudd and the Woods, a revival of age and experience, seem to be a perfect fit.
''You look forward to every year,'' said Eddie Wood, a co-owner.
''We've got a new driver, new paint schemes, a whole new outlook for us at Wood Brothers Racing. The advantage to having a guy like Ricky, with his experience, it takes you less time to get from Point A to Point B. You get to the racetrack and it may take 30 minutes of a two-hour practice to get where you want to get. In some other cases (with younger drivers) you might still get there, but it takes longer.''
The Woods approached sponsor Motorcraft about hiring Rudd shortly after Sadler announced he was headed to Yates. Motorcraft not only came up with the money necessary to get Rudd, but they also fattened their deal with the race team to make them more competitive.
''All of that contractual mess is over with, and it all worked out for everybody,'' Wood said. ''The sky is the limit.''
Rudd doesn't hide he has something to prove. He wasn't happy about the way his three-year stint with Yates ended, and he's equally unhappy with the suggestion that he's too old to keep pace with young drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Sadler.
Even after Sadler said Yates signed him at midseason, Rudd said he couldn't get Yates to tell him about his future until late in the year. All the while, Rudd's team was a solid contender in the top 10 and mathematically alive for the championship until the final month.
But once it was clear Rudd was gone and crew chief Michael McSwaim was leaving to join Bobby Labonte, the team's momentum crashed.
''I can set aside differences, but it was the most unpleasant situation in the world to be going through,'' Rudd said of his split. ''Whatever the differences, whatever they might be outside, let's go out and work on these race cars and try to win races and work as a group. They don't realize how few times those opportunities come along. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn't get it pulled together, and it grew farther and farther apart.
''It was nice to put that year behind us.''
Rudd feels revitalized by the opportunities available with the Wood Brothers. A rule change for the Ford Taurus essentially required everyone to start over with new cars.
''I guess the best way to put it is they're a team that's sort of a sleeper,'' Rudd said. ''There's a tremendous amount of talent there in that shop. They go after things very, very hard and very aggressively.''
That makes Rudd feel young. He feeds off the team's energy and determination to prove everyone wrong.
''I'm probably sort of fired up more so now that ever,'' Rudd said. ''I don't really know the real reason why. I'm sort of anxious to get out there and show the world this is a great race team.''
And bridge the generation gap in racing as well.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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