- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Coming off what he believes was a successful test at Bristol Motor Speedway, Ricky Rudd can only hope luck is on his side this weekend.
If so, it will be something of a rarity for the driver in what has been an irritating season. In many ways, 2005 has been a lot better than 2004 -- a year when Rudd felt his Wood Brothers Fords just weren't as competitive as they needed to be.
This year, Rudd's cars are fast more often than not. But circumstances have kept him from translating good cars into good races on more occasions than he cares to remember.
Rudd has been caught up in plenty of wrecks this year or encountered other woes that have spoiled potentially good days before they could truly unfold.
Still, he heads to Bristol feeling optimistic after testing.
"We carried two cars there and spent time in both of them. For about three-quarters of the day, I wasn't really happy with the car -- I was concerned about it," Rudd says. "Then about 2 or 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Fatback [crew chief Michael McSwain], hit on a combination.
"He wasn't really happy with what he was seeing on the watch and the way it looked on the racetrack. So in the afternoon, he hit on something really, really good. I'm really happy with it now. It was good on a long run; it was good on a short run."
And with caution flags likely to wave early and often, being good on the short run is imperative. Of course, good runs were what Rudd and Wood Brothers were hoping for a year ago, when McSwain and Rudd were reunited.
The duo had worked together successfully in the past, first with Rudd's own team and then at Robert Yates Racing. But when Rudd left for Wood Brothers, McSwain left for a stint at Joe Gibbs Racing.
After being released by Gibbs' operation last July, McSwain resurfaced with the Wood Brothers a month later.
"I just think that we have a really good mutual respect for one another, and if you're not working good on a given day, you're not handling good, there's no finger pointing," Rudd says of a relationship that has seen its share of highs and lows over the years.
"I think there's enough confidence in both of our abilities. I know he's a great setup guy, and I think he thinks I can get the job done when we get the car under me, so there are never any diversions, it's always working 100 percent toward the same common goal, which is to get the best out of the car that we can on that day."
After all these years, the two just seem to understand each other inherently.
"It's just the communication. You know, he's really good at what he does," Rudd says. "The way he likes to set cars up, he has a really good understanding of what I want in a car before I even get to a racetrack. And a special knack on the communication side is really excellent.
"We've had some really good runs, but unfortunately we haven't really been able to capitalize on some of the finishes that we deserved, but the performance is there. You'd always like it to be better, but it's definitely a big improvement over previous years."
Of course, the big question is whether there will be a next year for Rudd. But anyone waiting for an answer likely will be waiting quite a while.
Rudd's contract is up after this season, and he has said before that he'll continue racing as long as he's having fun. This year hasn't been fun in terms of the results, but the fact that he feels better about things this year than last could lead to his return.
Then there's the question of whether Rudd will return to Wood Brothers or move to another team. If Rudd were to move elsewhere, that likely would open the door for Jon Wood to join the team founded by his family more than 50 years ago.
Rudd says he'll answer those questions soon enough.
"I think we're getting a little closer," Rudd says of announcing his future plans. "I don't have a time [for it]. I don't have an answer for you."
Rudd knows the team isn't among the dominant forces this season, but he hopes to pull out a win before the year is over.
"I would not rule out a win," he said. "That's sort of what I'm gunning for. I still have fun when we have cars that are running good, like we have lately. We're running decent; we're just not getting the results."
Co-owner Eddie Wood knows things will unfold in due time.
"Right now, the most important thing for us as a race team is that now that we're running really well the focus is just seeing if we can win one," Wood says. "Then everything kind of falls into place. When your cars run well, everything else seems to be easier.
"The Ricky question comes up every day with the media, but we're just not worried with it. We're not dealing with it. And he's not either. We're just trying to race right now. We're racing every week and testing every week. We're just really busy."
Wood says the results aren't an indication that Rudd can no longer get the job done. He says that watching the car during the race is all the proof needed that Rudd can still be competitive.
"That's not the issue," Wood said. "It's all there, but for some reason the racing gods won't let it come together. But it's coming together. And that's why we're trying to focus on [the day when] you don't have a problem it will fall into place and you win a race."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
Ricky Rudd will announce his future plans soon enough. For now, he's more focused on steering the No. 21 Ford into Victory Lane.