MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Speculation has run rampant around what Ricky Rudd's plans are for next season, but thus far he's kept quiet.
But I heard an unconfirmed rumor Friday at Martinsville that perhaps makes the most sense of any buzz that I've heard in a long time.
Instead of retiring at the end of this year, Rudd could leave the No. 21 car to drive the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi next season.
Jamie McMurray would be released from the final year of his contract with Ganassi so that he can drive the No. 97 Ford for Roush Racing, thus freeing up Kurt Busch to get out of his contract with Roush one year early to replace Rusty Wallace in the No. 2 Dodge next season.
Sources indicate that Ganassi could also receive payment from the Roush camp, which in turn likely would receive funds from Penske Racing South and primary sponsor Miller Lite for Busch's early release to replace Wallace.
Consider who the sponsor of the No. 42 car is: Texaco Havoline, the same colors Rudd flew for three seasons (2000-2002) during his term with Robert Yates Racing. From what I've heard, Texaco Havoline is not pleased with having McMurray as a moody, unhappy lame-duck driver in '06 and has been applying pressure to Ganassi to let McMurray go. Texaco Havoline would then build a significant one-year farewell tour marketing campaign around Rudd.
During his three-year term driving the No. 28 Texaco Havoline Ford for Robert Yates Racing, Rudd compiled three wins, 34 top-fives, 53 top-10s and three poles, easily dwarfing the numbers McMurray has put up since running with that sponsorship. The deal could be announced either next week at Atlanta or the following week at Texas – if it indeed is true.
As for the Wood Brothers, John Andretti is rumored to be a possible one-year fill-in until Jon Wood is ready to go full-time on the Cup level in 2007. The No. 21 car still needs sponsorship for next season, which is one more thing Rudd would not want to worry about.
If these moves are indeed in the works, it's no surprise that Rudd has been so adamant about keeping his future plans under wraps. He categorically refuses to discuss whether he'll be racing for the Wood Brothers next season, let alone if he'll even be back in any Cup car at all – much like he did following Friday afternoon's qualifying session.
"Let's talk about Martinsville," said Rudd, who will start Sunday's Subway 500 on the outside pole. "I know what's happening here. No disrespect to everybody, it's just not time to announce anything yet."
Still, I asked him how can the hundreds of thousands of loyal fans who've stuck with him for more than a quarter-century get the opportunity to fittingly say goodbye to him if he was to simply just walk away at the end of this season?
Rudd's answer speaks for itself.
"Let me say this," Rudd said. "I've got a really good group of fans that have followed me through thick and thin over the years – second- and third-generation fans. We're very aware of the support we have from them and the last thing we want to do is make it appear like we're snubbing them or dusting them off. It's not intended that way."
Rudd could have stopped there, but he continued, which added even further enlightenment to what kind of cards he's holding.
"When everything comes out and all the hands get played, I think everyone will see there were reasons why things needed to be kept under wraps," said Rudd, who added that he has no plans to race in the Busch or Craftsman Truck ranks. "The time has not come to divulge that. I wish I could. I wish I could tell everybody what's going on, but it's not time to do that.
"I just hope the fans that have been with me through thick and thin understand that when the day comes. There will be ones that maybe we'll alienate because they didn't get the scoop early when it wasn't time to give them the scoop."
That doesn't that sound like a guy who's going to walk away from racing at the end of this season.
Rather, it sounds like a guy who figures to be the most integral part of one of the biggest driver shifts in recent memory.