- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Ricky Rudd is on vacation with his family this week and Tony Stewart hopes it stays that way. Still nursing a broken right shoulder blade, Stewart plans to spend the entire weekend at Pocono Raceway, much of it behind the wheel of his car.
But that's just one weekend. And when Rudd ended his NASCAR hiatus at Dover, Del., to serve as Stewart's relief driver -- after first practicing and qualifying for Stewart -- the big question became whether Rudd will be back behind the wheel either this year or next.
Rudd has fielded inquiries from teams desiring his services, among them some of the teams that will field Toyotas next year. Rudd, though, hasn't committed to racing -- or not racing -- next year.
He's still trying to get a feel for what life away from driving is truly like. And once he knows, he has to decide whether that's a feeling he's ready to embrace just yet.
"I hated to use the word retirement and really never have. I wanted to see if I could settle into a routine after doing this for 30 or 31 years," Rudd said. "I have really enjoyed my time off. I have been out playing with my son [Landon] just about every day. I feel like I neglected him over the last several years because just the nature of the sport. He and I have spent a lot of time together, rode a lot of dirt bikes and go-karts. We have stayed really active.
"I was telling someone the other day that I race more now than I used to, but I just don't get paid to do it. We have been out chasing each other around, staying in pretty good shape. I have been staying close to home, not traveling a lot, and that has been pretty nice. I have been watching from the outside and keeping my eye on what is going on. There are a lot of things about the sport that I miss and a lot of things I don't miss."
Time inside the car always has been enjoyable for Rudd, even when his performances haven't been the best. But the weekly grind of appearances and other commitments and the time away from home is the flip side.
And that will play a role in his decision. Undoubtedly, the caliber of the teams vying for his services also will play a role -- assuming he decides he wants to keep driving in the first place.
Some of the teams, though, might need an answer sooner than later, if only to placate current or potential new sponsors. If that's the case, Rudd hopes those teams, such as Toyota's Team Red Bull, also are looking elsewhere.
Rudd said it appears Toyota's building a strong operation, but he has told all suitors he's not rushing into a decision. He said that wouldn't be fair to the teams or to him.
"At this point, I am not committed to anything next year and I really am working hard at taking a year off," Rudd said. "[Racing at Dover] maybe changes things a little bit this weekend, but right now, if you ask me if I am going to come back and run a 100 percent schedule, or will I do it next year, right now I don't think so.
"I am enjoying my time off right now. It seems like the more time I have off, the more I am enjoying it. As far as the Toyota situation, they are working hard to put a good effort [into] finding drivers and teams and putting together everything to make that in place. I have been contacted by some non-Toyota teams also and more or less let them know I am not ready to commit to anything."
Rudd qualified 10th at Dover, then took over for Stewart during the first caution flag. But the time making the driver change kept the team from adjusting the car, leaving Rudd a bit behind from the outset.
That cost him a lap, and he lost another lap when he was penalized for speeding on pit road. Still, Stewart was grateful for Rudd's help.
"I think Ricky did a great job," Stewart said. "You know, for not being in the car all year, I thought Ricky did an awesome job all day."
Rudd would disagree. He was looking forward to driving championship-caliber equipment after several tough seasons with Wood Brothers Racing and doesn't believe he got the best out of Stewart's car.
Part of that was not having a previous working relationship with crew chief Greg Zipadelli, which kept Rudd from giving him the feedback required to make the proper chassis adjustments. Still, by the end of the day, the car was more to his liking.
"Zippy made some calls and dialed the chassis in a little bit better for me," Rudd said. "For a little while, we could kind of tag along pretty good and run with those guys that were running in the top five and sort of hang along. I was right behind Matt Kenseth for a long time when he had that duel with Kyle Busch. I was sitting there watching it. At that time, I actually could have passed both of them, but I knew they were racing for the top spots and didn't want to stink the show up for those guys. That was fun, sitting right there, being in the hunt and being able to run with some of those guys."
But only Rudd can determine whether he had enough fun to want to climb behind the wheel again on a full-time basis.
"Well, you want to come back and do a better job," Rudd said. "From that standpoint, it sort of gets to you, like I want to come back and do something. We'll see. We'll go from here."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com
Ricky Rudd enjoyed replacing Tony Stewart and racing a top car. That doesn't mean he's ready to come back, writes Mark Ashenfelter.