Drivers optimistic heading into '04

Updated: February 8, 2004, 2:57 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Elliott Sadler and Ricky Rudd are still playing opposites.

One year after swapping rides, holding opposite desires and goals for their futures, the two are optimistic that all of their goals can come to fruition in 2004 -- but for very different reasons.

For Rudd, it's a matter of relying on what's known and minimizing change. For Sadler, the change is what's got him juiced up.

Over the winter, Rudd's team owners -- the Wood Brothers -- uprooted their shop from Stuart, Va., where it has been since the team's inception, and moved it to the unofficial home base for NASCAR racers ... Mooresville, N.C. And while Rudd didn't necessarily prefer one locale to the other, he was apprehensive of the move, nonetheless.

"With a move comes a lot of changes and you wonder how much time have you lost working and preparing race cars when you decide to make a move like that," Rudd said. "It's a pretty major move."

Rudd said the team planned well, didn't miss a day of working on the cars and has relied heavily on the notes compiled from a season full of mishaps to come up with a fleet of No. 21 Fords that's got the veteran feeling confident.

"I think as it turns out and the way we've tested (at Daytona International Speedway) so far, these guys haven't missed a beat," Rudd said. "They've gotten really good over the winter and I understand the way the move took place there wasn't really a lost day of working on cars. Even though the move took place, it was done really organized. We'll see. Time will tell, but right now going into Daytona -- and I'm just basing it on how the car drives, how it feels, how fast it's already run on the race track -- I'm pretty excited about it."

While Rudd has sought to temper change, Sadler revels in it. But that's understandable -- Rudd took the seat of a race car that finished 23rd in the points standings the year before he got there (under the control of Sadler, of course) and finished 23rd. Meanwhile, Sadler took a car that Rudd piloted to a 10th-place finish the year before and finished a lowly 22nd.

There was a lot of bad luck, a lot of change and a lot of frustration; but Sadler is optimistic once more, convinced that a slew of changes has the 38 team primed for a return to the top 10.

"Hopefully, I got a lot of the bad luck off of our shoulders last year, but that's part of racing," Sadler said. "You've got to take the good with the bad. You try to look at it the best way you can. I know it's the beginning of the season and everybody has a lot of optimism right now, but we've got a lot of new faces in our race shop. They made a lot of good changes and the attitude and smiles on those guys' faces in the shop is showing me we're gonna have a lot better season this year. There's a lot of hard work going on and I think it'll pay dividends for us."

Elliott Sadler
Sadler expects to climb higher in the standings this season.

It didn't early on, as Sadler had a pretty disappointing test session at Daytona. Sadler scored his career-best Daytona finish the year before leaving the 21 team when he finished second behind Ward Burton in 2002.

"We're not extremely happy with the speeds we've been getting," Sadler said. "(Teammate) Dale Jarrett was very fast last week and we kind of expected to be in the same boat. But we're getting the cars driving very well. We always come in here and worry about speed and then when you get in the middle of a pack here at Speedweeks, you have problems with handling. That's something Todd really wanted to work on was getting the car driving good for me on any part of the racetrack, then we'll worry about speed when we come back.

"We know the engine guys are working hard and we'll be in good shape on their behalf. The (fabricators) still have a little more massaging to do, so as far as speed-wise, we're not quite where we need to be. As far as handling, we feel like we're better than we've ever been. Maybe it's going to be an even swap."

Sadler said he isn't exactly stressed. Not yet. Last season, Sadler won a pole at Talladega Superspeedway, so he knows he and his team can perform at the big tracks and come up with the speed. Right now, he's just being patient.

"We got the pole in the last speedway race, so it's not like we're in left field anywhere," Sadler said. "We qualified good (at Daytona) last year for both races and Talladega, so our qualifying package is good. We know that when it comes time to qualify and Robert and Doug and everybody in the engine room tunes the motors up and the guys get all the stuff they can out of the body, that we're going to be in good shape. That's not a big concern. If we get the car handling good and driving where it needs to be, that's what it's going to take to win the Daytona 500."

Of course, that was true last year, too -- but Sadler and Co. often found it difficult to capitalize on strong qualifying efforts with strong finishes.

"Our race stuff is what we still need to work on and that's why the new bodies are going to help us a lot," said Sadler, referring to the changes approved for the Ford bodies. "When we untapped these Fords last year, we lost a lot of front downforce and I think that made it hard on us at some of the tracks we run at."

Sadler's quite optimistic going into 2004. But you'll have to allow him that. He feels like he's paid some serious dues, invested a lot of hard work and patience, and is now waiting for his payout.

"I feel more relaxed and better prepared this year than I've ever been and I think it's because I've lived with a couple different teams and gone through the highs and lows and understand how bad it'll mess you up if you let it," he said. "This winter was probably the best winter I've ever had as far as clearing my head and getting all my ducks in a row and coming back. We know we've got a job to do and I kind of know how to handle myself better and better and I think it's just experience that comes with you the more years you race in NASCAR."

While Sadler's motivation for jumping over to the Robert Yates Racing No. 38 car was to get into better equipment, reap the benefits of having a teammate -- of the caliber of Dale Jarrett, no less -- and jumpstart his still young career, Rudd had a different agenda when leaving the Yates organization for the Wood Brothers.

Rudd has spent most of his life racing, and more than half of his life racing in NASCAR. Though he's never won a title, he has an impressive racing resume and, more than anything, wants to get back to racing for joy. He wanted to get away from the pressures of racing under Yates and give it a go with the Wood Brothers, where a couple of victories would be celebrated like a title.

But with that move, Rudd wasn't accepting a full disappearance from the spotlight. And this month, he'd like to prove that emphatically with a win at the Daytona 500. Sound crazy? Well, the driver of the 21, who had an impressive showing during Speedweeks last season, posted the fastest time during January testing.

"This is the biggest race and it comes at the front of the season," Rudd said. "I've been saying that for years, but that's why these test sessions are probably more important than maybe we realize because this is the only real experience we have preceding the Daytona 500. It's a big race. It's still the biggest. The Brickyard has kind of caught up and then it's lost some ground, but the Daytona 500 is still the big one.

"... So we're definitely real pleased with that. It's been a long time since I've been at the top of a speed chart at Daytona -- it's been many years. We did have a good run here last time. We actually qualified fifth overall for the 500 on speed, so Daytona has been a good track for the Wood Brothers."

Ricky Rudd
AP PhotoRudd hopes to have more to smile about in '04.

Team co-owner Eddie Wood said the motors are better, the bodies are better and, more than anything, the team morale is better. For years, this team has felt a little bit behind the rest of the competition, and for the first time in a long time there's a smile on Wood's face that suggests that's changed.

"You can't really point to one thing, it's really a combination of things because a lot of things have changed within our team and around our team and, so far, everything is really better," Wood said. "I just hope I don't wake up and find out I'm two years behind from now and this is a dream that we're down here running like we are. It's been a struggle for us down here. We usually race pretty well, but we had trouble qualifying."

And as nervous as Rudd was about the big move to Mooresville, he's excited about how it might help.

"I think Eddie and I and Len and everybody involved looked out and it's not too hard to figure out that I think we were getting farther and farther behind on the engineering side of the sport," Rudd said. "Everything now is rocket science and we didn't really have the engineering support that we needed to try to be competitive. Eddie and (his brother Len) saw that no matter how hard they tried to get the technical people they needed to come to Stuart, they couldn't get them to move out of the area. So the next thing they did is they moved the shop to the technical people."

Now, with the move to Mooresville, the Wood Brothers have aligned with Roush Racing and are reaping tons of information from the owner of last year's Cup championship team.

"We pretty much operated without engineers last year, but now we've got the access to Roush engineering," Rudd said. "It's not just one or two engineers, they've got a whole engineering staff and that information is available to us this year. There are some technical reasons why maybe it wasn't available last year and I think they've worked through those things a little bit. Now we're more of a complete team than we were last year."

Rudd's already proving that.

"I can speak for myself and say I'd much rather be at the top of the (speeds) sheet than at the bottom of the sheet," he said. "We've been at the bottom of the sheet enough. It excites me to come into Daytona. You come here to do good. You come here to learn and get better. We came here and unloaded fast and we got faster. I'm excited about it. What does this mean for a pole contender or 500 winner? It doesn't necessarily mean you have the pole wrapped up by any means, but if you come back with the same things we have today, we can be a contender for the pole or we can at least have a shot at a top 10 in speed, which is basically insurance for the Daytona 500.

"That's why we're here -- to try to race and try to win. I get excited about running fast, so I guess we won today. It didn't pay anything, but it's still nice to do it."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.