ATLANTA - At first it seemed like a joke. Then, when the laughter stopped, the idea of Ricky Rudd driving for Robert Yates suddenly didn't seem so funny.
The racing community had rallied around Rudd's attempt to secure sponsorship for the 2000 season and beyond, but what started as a joke between two old friends started to make more sense.
"I went by Robert in the garage area at Indianapolis (last month), and I said I should drive his car next year," Rudd said. "I think we both got a laugh out of that.
"Then I started thinking about it, and it started to make sense. Once I could take the emotions out of it, the decision was pretty much black and white as what I needed to do. I only have about five or six good driving years left in me, and this is my best chance to win a championship. This is a championship-quality team."
With that, the last of the big-time ownerdriver operations on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series will disappear next year as Rudd changes from employer to employee. Like the many before him, Rudd found the rigors of driving every week, mixed with the emotions of finding, coaxing and pleasing Corporate America, to be too much. When he couldn't land an $8 million a year sponsor, Rudd had no other option. He pulled the plug.
"It was a pride issue, a pride factor," Rudd said. "Nobody wants it all to end. When it ends, I wanted it to be me who ended it. I think everybody in the Winston Cup garage needs to be in the owner's shoes -- at some time in their career. It gives you a little different perspective on the sport. It makes me appreciate just having to drive the race car for a change instead of having to deal with all the problems."
Two hours before he and Yates made the formal announcement this week, Rudd met with his employees at Rudd Performance Motorsports and gave them the news. He promised to provide a recommendation for each, even saying he would accompany them to job interviews.
Yates will buy Rudd's shop in Lakeside Park near Concord, N.C. The building sits on six acres of land that will allow Yates to move his No. 28 Ford Taurus into the existing facility. In time, Yates plans to expand the building to include his other car, the No. 88 Ford driven by Dale Jarrett.
Texaco Havoline, the longtime sponsor on the No. 28 car, was impressed enough to extend its deal with Yates through the 2003 season.
Yates said he was convinced during last month's race at Bristol, Tenn., that he wanted Rudd in his car next year. He was tired of taking chances on unproven drivers like former driver Kenny Irwin, and Rudd had more than enough experience to make that car a contender every week.
"People in the grandstands (at Bristol) were yelling, `Hire Ricky! Hire Ricky!' That did it for me," Yates said.
An hour before signing the deal with Yates, Rudd got a call from a Fortune 500 company that wanted to splash its colors on one of his cars next year. But it didn't sway him. Rudd was weary of the battle and had accepted the fact that his dual role on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series during the past six years was over.
Rudd said he didn't know what he would do with his fleet of race cars, but it's expected that Yates will buy the best of the bunch and sell off the rest to other teams.
Rudd learned in late June was losing his long-time sponsor, Tide. Proctor and Gamble decided to move that sponsorship to a new team being fielded by Indy Car owner Cal Wells. At the same time, Tide asked Rudd if he would drive for Wells.
"I guess they liked the driver, but not the car owner," Rudd quipped.
Rudd wound up with one of the best cars in stock car racing. It's the same car Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan almost drove to championships. Now the only thing on Rudd's mind is racing hard, winning races and challenging for a championship.
"You've put your heart and soul into (being a car owner), and you worked and worked and worked, and it just wasn't in the cards," Rudd said. "We just couldn't raise the money that it took to compete."
Rudd said he would spend every dime remaining in his current deal with Tide in winning one of the final nine races on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule. Rudd currently has the longest streak of seasons with at least one victory with 16 years. He is winless this season heading into Sunday's race at the New Hampshire International Speedway, but promises a frenzied effort down the stretch to keep the winning streak alive.
"I am not going to roll over yet," Rudd said. "Our goal is to spend every dollar we have in the budget to finish this year out with a win. I want to keep my streak alive. I have a few more races, and I want to try and win."