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Happy, Go Ricky The burden of running his own team lifted, Ricky Rudd is free to win again

For the better part of two decades NASCAR fans could add to
death and taxes two other certainties: Dale Earnhardt would have
a mustache, and Ricky Rudd would win a race. Then last year the
unthinkable happened when Earnhardt shaved and Rudd failed to
reach Victory Lane for the first time since 1982--the same year
the Intimidator was last without a soup strainer.

This confluence of events can be explained by the fact that
Earnhardt shaved so that he could snorkel more comfortably and
that Rudd discovered how hard it is for an owner-driver to
succeed in the age of multicar teams. Rudd had been on his own
since leaving Rick Hendrick's stable before the 1994 season.
There had been a lot of bickering among Hendrick's three crews,
and Rudd had slipped back in the standings after finishing
second in points in '91. "We weren't getting any closer to
winning a championship, and maybe I got a little antsy and
decided I was going to do something different," he says. "I
figured, if I had the financial support, running a team was all
about people, and I'd hire good people and build a championship

That thinking held up for the first three years Rudd was on his
own. In that span he won six races while finishing fifth, ninth
and then sixth in the points standings, but eventually the
fiscal responsibilities and time constraints of running a team
bogged him down. "Somewhere along the line racing became big
business," he says. "We were underfunded and understaffed. I
didn't take lunch breaks, and I was off my workout program for
six years." The team plummeted to 31st in points last year, and
midway through the season Tide, Rudd's primary sponsor, told him
it was pulling out after 1999. Around the same time, another car
owner, Robert Yates, dismissed his driver, Kenny Irwin. It
didn't take a genius to see that Rudd and Yates might be a good
match, and they finalized a deal last September.

At the wheel of his new Ford when the 2000 season began at
Daytona in February, Rudd couldn't wipe the smile off his face,
not even after crossing the finish line on his roof in his first
outing, the Bud Shootout, a qualifying run for the 500. "No
regrets," he says of trying to make it on his own, "but I don't
think I'd want to be an owner-driver again. I never enjoyed the
business side of it."

No longer owning a team means no longer having to show up at the
shop at seven on the morning after a race. More important, Rudd
can concentrate on driving, and it's paying off. He hasn't won
yet this year, but he finished fourth in last week's NAPA Auto
Parts 500, and he's tenth in points. Instead of fretting over
paying the bills, he has fewer worries. "The biggest thing is
learning how to relax a bit," he says of his new life. "Over the
winter I was worrying about things like what color stripes to
put on the motor home."