LAS VEGAS -- Once Ricky Rudd's ego allowed him to take orders instead of give them, his pride gladly allowed him to accept paychecks instead of writing them.
Rudd tried for six years on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series to be his own boss. What he learned was he's a better employee than an employer.
Now just a hired hand aboard one of Robert Yates' jet-quick Ford Taurus race cars, Rudd is content with only one full-time duty on race day. The more he settles into his role as a driver for the Havoline Ford, the more he wonders why he didn't give up his role as a car owner a long time ago.
"It's been a whole lot easier for me to try and get away and relax a little bit because I haven't had to be at the transporter every morning at the crack of dawn, sitting down to discuss what we're going to do with these cars today to get them up to speed," Rudd said as he kicked back and watched others complete the relentless work on his car. "They've really had a much more aggressive approach, a more expensive approach to racing than I've used in the last six years. These guys have so much depth and so much talent."
At 43, Rudd is rejuvenated by his new job. He's coming off Sunday's sixth-place finish at the North Carolina Speedway and feels he's got the kind of momentum that could take him back to Victory Lane during this week's CarsDirect.com 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"I think we've got something we can work with," Rudd said. "It's funny: Put me in a great car, and all of a sudden, I can drive again.
"I'm kind of picking fun at myself a little bit. The biggest thing is, I'm sitting in that Robert Yates race car. That alone just kind of tends to give you a big boost of confidence."
Like so many other drivers who ventured into car ownership, he found the pressures of operating both the business and steering wheel too much to handle. When Tide announced it would not return to Rudd's team this year, it actually turned into a favor. If Tide had stayed, or if Rudd had been able to land a different $8 million a year sponsor, he still would be working 18 hours a day to barely keep pace with car owners like Yates.
"With your own stuff, you didn't have enough money to dedicate (to the level Yates provides)," Rudd said. "I would have blown 85 percent of my budget trying to go to the Daytona 500 to compete on the same level with these operations."
In the weeks that followed Tide's decision, Rudd was angry. That soon became desperation for a month as he tried to keep his team alive. All along, Yates had an offer on the table to drive one of the most successful cars on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. And adding to his frustration was the fact that his record of winning at least one race a year for 16 consecutive years came to an end in 1999.
Now that Rudd has adjusted to his new role, he can't imagine why he ever considered keeping his team afloat. After all, he only had four top-five finishes in the past two years while failing to finish 14 times.
"There's no way I could have planned for my team to shut down," Rudd said. "When everything sort of started to come to a halt as far as the sponsorship deal, there's no way I could have planned for it to end. I didn't want it to end. Thirty days later, Robert Yates was calling and stupid me told him I needed another 30 days to think about it.
"The way things turned out, I had no control. I was just along for the right."
Rudd, a new teammate to defending Winston Cup Series Champion Dale Jarrett, appreciates the chance to run up front and contend for a championship. In fact, he's found the experience to be more valuable than owning a garage full of collateral and racing bills.
"I'm trying to think right now, but I can't think of anything I miss about being an owner," Rudd said. "Again, if you were an individual that liked to have total control and had to have that, then you probably wouldn't like the situation now.
"But you've got to remember, I've enjoyed someone else coming in and taking the pressure off me and running the business side of it. It's been a welcomed relief for me. I can get a breather now. I know all the business stuff is being handled, and I know it's in good hands.
"Besides, for the first time in seven years, I've got money in my checking account. That's not bad, either."
Especially when ego and pride finally take a back seat to common sense.
Next at race: CarsDirect.com 400 (Third of 34).
When: Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
Broadcast: Television - ABC; Radio - Motor Racing Network.
Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The track: 1.5-mile quad-oval.
Last year's winner: Jeff Burton.
What it takes to win: There have only been two races at Las Vegas and both winners followed the same storyline - they were aboard Fords prepared by Jack Roush. Mark Martin won in 1998, and Burton followed in 1999. The raceway is wide, smooth and fast. Handling is a key, but horsepower is paramount. The cars that can exit the second and fourth turns at full throttle are the ones that will contend for the victory.
Morris News Service pick: Bobby Labonte.
Others to watch: Dale Earnhardt, Martin, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Ward Burton.
Other major races: Saturday - Sam's Town 300 (NASCAR Busch Series) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
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