- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Ricky Rudd isn't really sure why Joe Gibbs Racing decided to part ways with veteran crew chief Michael "Fatback" McSwain back in July. Rudd really doesn't care, either, he's just grateful that McSwain was looking for work.
Rudd's Wood Brothers Racing team has struggled from the outset in 2004 and things just weren't clicking with Ben Leslie calling the shots. So when the chance to get back with McSwain presented itself, team co-owners Eddie and Len Wood got the deal done, pleasing Rudd.
McSwain started with the Nexel Cup team at Bristol and after just two weeks Rudd's already feeling more comfortable behind the wheel. A 17th-place finish at California Speedway usually wouldn't mean much to the veteran, but this year it's a step in the right direction.
As the Chesapeake, Va., native heads to Richmond -- a track where he and McSwain have run well together in the past -- it's tempting to view Rudd as a contender in Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400, but that might be putting the cart in front of the horse. Or, in racing terms, a matter of expecting too much out of a car not handcrafted to McSwain's liking.
Each crew chief has certain things they want from a car and construct them accordingly. Cars, though, can't be built overnight, so McSwain is tinkering with the cars currently on hand while building new ones to his specification. Those should be available later this month, but Rudd's optimism isn't surprising.
"The bottom line is that I've got confidence knowing that I can see we've kind of turned the corner," Rudd says. "How quickly we get to where we can start talking about winning races again, I don't know.
"I don't want to rule out that it could happen [right away] but, realistically, I think we need to start getting top 10s and top 5s and then we'll talk about wins. I don't want to put that pressure on anybody, but I definitely think you'll see an immediate turnaround and we'll be a legitimate top 10 contender -- especially when we get Fatback's cars in the system."
While much of a driver's success depends on the car underneath him, the mental aspect can't be ruled out. Rudd and Leslie never quite developed the chemistry that's immediately evident when Rudd and McSwain get together. Rudd first hired him when he ran his own team, then they moved together to Robert Yates Racing.
That relationship flamed out in 2002, with Rudd heading to the Wood Brothers and McSwain joining Bobby Labonte's team. While McSwain and Labonte won twice last year, Rudd's tenure with the Wood Brothers has been a disappointment thus far. It remains to be seen whether McSwain can get the team to victory lane, but it wouldn't be wise to bet against him.
"We hadn't worked with each other for a couple of years, but [the chemistry] picked right up pretty quick," says Rudd, calling McSwain one of the handful of crew chiefs who can make something happen for a race team.
For whatever reason, a driver with 23 Cup victories hasn't made much of anything happen since leaving Roush. Needless to say, a man who turns 48 on Sunday knows that time's a wasting if he's going to making his remaining time in the sport successful.
And Rudd makes no secret of the fact the past two seasons have been, "real frustrating."
"You get kind of spoiled and you start taking a lot of things for granted," he says of past successes. "Probably about 50 percent of my career have been top 10s. It's very competitive now, but if you perform to your abilities and the team's abilities, top 10s are not easy to come by, but they should be there for you. We weren't making any progress; we weren't getting anywhere. It wasn't because a lack of trying ... the chemistry just wasn't clicking."
Rudd's willing to admit the struggles have played on his mind, but even at Bristol he started getting a better feel for things. Maybe it's the way McSwain sets up his car, maybe it's just the comfort of being with someone with whom he's won in the past, but Rudd's smiling a lot more at the track these days.
One of the few things that helped keep Rudd from really getting depressed is how hard he feels the team worked under Leslie.
"They haven't been sitting there twiddling their thumbs," Rudd says. "They've been trying to figure it out, but it seemed the more they tried the worse we got. Bristol was pretty encouraging. We had a good car and ended up getting wrecked, but it drove really well.
"The main thing I noticed was that in the previous year we ran in the top five and in the second race I think we broke something, but the first Bristol race this year was pretty disastrous. That's all I've got to compare it to, but [this time] things went a lot smoother and we were poised to have a pretty good run. From a positive standpoint the cars are starting to do what I want them to do. We need to get better and it's coming that direction pretty quick."
McSwain doesn't care to talk specifically about what led to his departure from Gibbs' operation, other than saying that he intends to have a lot more fun with his current team.
"You learn things from every situation you're in in life," McSwain says of his time with Gibbs' operation. "I'm not a corporate person. I'm just a plain old redneck from the hills of North Carolina and I enjoy life and I like to have fun in life. I'm not saying my situation was bad, I'm just not a suit and tie kind of guy."
Needless to say, the only time you'll see McSwain in a suit in a racing-related situation is if he's at the annual awards ceremony in New York City after a successful season.
McSwain, though, is the type of man who enjoys the celebrations after the formal ceremony much more than the ceremony itself. He plans to bring that spirit to Rudd and his new team. But don't take that to mean that it will be fun and games all the time.
"I demand a lot out of my people, but I also expect them to have a lot of fun," McSwain says. "We're gonna kid around and we're gonna work hard. If I've said it once I've said it a hundred times -- we're gonna work our guts out but we're gonna have fun. If you can't get up everyday and look forward to going to work, then you're not gonna do good at what you do. I don't care what it is. If it's a reporter, or if it's a TV analyst, or if it's a crew chief, or if it's a guy who builds shocks, you have to get up in the morning and say, 'Hey, I'm looking forward to going to work.'"
Rudd certainly seems like he's looking forward to climbing behind the wheel these days. He and McSwain didn't part on the greatest terms two years ago; but Rudd says that other than one big blowup between the two, things were good more often than not while at Yates' operation. And just as teams in other professional sports are willing to give a proven head coach another chance, it's not all that surprising to see Rudd and McSwain together again.
Only time will tell if the two can truly rekindle the magic, but McSwain doesn't see any reason why that can't be the case again.
"I think we can do anything we're willing to do. I think most anybody's success with anything they do in life has got to have that mindset," he says. "We can relax and stay where we are or we can bust our humps and make all these [other teams] have bad race days next year."
To make that happen will take plenty of effort, but McSwain's never backed away from a challenge -- especially when he doesn't think it's as big as outsiders would suggest.
"I think there are a lot of strengths and there's a lot of hunger," McSwain says. "You've got a lot of people who work just as hard as anybody else in this garage area, but they just haven't seen the success. I think there's a lot of talent here that people don't know about and that I didn't know about. My job is gonna be to take all of that talent and corral it up together to get everybody pointed in the right direction."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
Reunited with his old crew chief "Fatback" McSwain, Ricky Rudd feels like anything's possible again.