Ricky Rudd will be back in Nextel Cup full-time next season, and that bodes well for Robert Yates Racing.
After a year off from Cup racing, Rudd will replace Dale Jarrett on Yates' roster, piloting the No. 88 Ford – or possibly, according to some reports, the No. 28.
Rudd sitting behind the wheel of a Yates car is a familiar sight – and for his and Yates' fans, a welcome one. Rudd piloted Yates' No. 28 – which became the No. 38 when Elliott Sadler replaced Rudd entering 2003 – for three years, winning three races and finishing in the top 10 in points (twice in the top five) all three seasons.
Rudd then drove for the Wood Brothers team for three years before taking the 2006 season off, save for one appearance as Tony Stewart's relief driver.
A return to Yates is an interesting move for several reasons. First, while Rudd never said he was officially retired, it was very uncertain whether he would return to Cup racing for more than a full-time schedule.
Second, Rudd's relationship with Yates did not end all that well.
But the two did enjoy great success together, and Yates is making an effort to reignite a team that sputtered badly in 2006. Sadler left the organization over the summer, and Jarrett and his UPS sponsorship are heading elsewhere in 2007.
Yates is banking some of his future on David Gilliland, who became an overnight sensation earlier in the year by beating the Buschwhackers and winning a Busch race with a team that essentially didn't even have a sponsor.
And while Gilliland showed great promise on the Cup side in the No. 38 car down the stretch in 2006, adding a veteran like Rudd to the mix can only help Gilliland's development and the team's rebuilding effort.
Sure, putting another young driver with a lot of upside in the second ride would be a viable option, but this team isn't at a point where taking such a risk is worth it. After all, Rudd will bring stability and leadership – and a significant fan base – that will complement Gilliland nicely. Rudd also should be able to provide a level of feedback necessary to improve the cars and setups that Gilliland, by virtue of lack of Cup experience, simply cannot.
In other words, Rudd brings a lot to the table that a driver with little to no Cup experience wouldn't.
Having Rudd also, frankly, should help Yates attract much-needed sponsorship – Masterfoods USA, which sponsors the No. 38 with its M&M's brand, will put its Snickers brand on the hood of Rudd's car – and positive press. And driving for Yates, who still should have some of the best engines out there, could give Rudd a shot or two to get back into victory lane.
"When I took a break from racing at the end of 2005, I knew that I would return to competition if the right opportunity presented itself," Rudd said.
A familiar organization, a car with potential and a team that has nowhere to go but up – that seems like a textbook definition of a "right opportunity."
And if Rudd only keeps the seat warm for a year or two until Yates finds the next great young driver and Rudd decides he finally is ready to walk away, so be it. It will have been a year or two very well spent for both Yates and Rudd.
- Robert Yates Racing