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NASCAR Wood brothers in better shape



Published: Mon, February 10, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Finances aren't nearly as bad as last year for the family-owned team from Virginia.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- The Wood Brothers finished second in the Daytona 500 last year, cashed in their winnings and immediately paid back their father the money they owed him.

A year later, things aren't nearly as tight.

Eddie and Len Wood are back at Daytona with veteran driver Ricky Rudd, a major commitment from sponsor Motorcraft and a ton of support from Ford Motor Company.

For the first time since 1994, when Morgan Shepherd ended the year sixth in points for the 54-year-old family-owned Virginia-based team, the Wood Brothers have targeted finishing in the Top 10 as their season goal.

Roots

"We feel better than we have in a long time," said Len Wood, who along with older brother Eddie, runs the business started by father Glen and uncle Leonard the year after NASCAR was founded.

"Our immediate goal is to get to [the awards ceremony] in New York and the closer to the stage, the better. But we think we've got a shot at getting there."

Rain forced a 24-hour postponement of Sunday's pole qualifying for the Feb. 16 race, so Rudd and his new team sat idle through the storm thinking about what could be the beginning of a comeback for the famed No. 21 Ford.

Rudd takes over the car from Elliott Sadler, who drove it to a runner-up finish here last season, only to announce a few months later he wanted out of his contract to go to a more competitive team.

When owner Robert Yates decided not to renew Rudd's contract after three seasons, Sadler and Rudd essentially swapped seats.

Rudd is confident he can bring the car back to prominence. The Wood Brothers have 97 career wins -- 36 by David Pearson from 1973 to 1978 -- but only three victories since 1988.

"Everyone thinks this is a tiny team tucked away in Stuart [Va.] and 100 years behind," Rudd said. "But it's the total opposite. I know what we've got to work with, I know where we are and I know where we are headed.

Outlook beyond Daytona

"At this time of the year, all the teams are optimistic, but we really are feeling good about our chances."

To get Rudd, the Wood Brothers needed to significantly upgrade their program. They had the money to pay the salary Rudd was looking for, but meeting his demands would have meant skimping in competition areas.

So sponsor Motorcraft upped its commitment and Ford did everything it could to lend its support.

With a sudden surplus of cash, the Woods are guaranteed a minimum of 120 hours in the wind tunnel this season -- each hour costs $2,100 -- to improve their technology.

And they are one of just a handful of teams using an innovative 40 percent model program, which gives them a scaled-down version of a Winston Cup car to try new technologies on and take to the wind tunnel at half the cost.

But they were forced to wait until today to see how far they've come in the short time since Rudd was hired in August.

The delay was the first time Daytona 500 qualifying was postponed since 1983.

Rudd knows he should have a good car, based on testing results, his eighth-place finish in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, and Sadler's success last season in the car.

But he knows it will be a crowded field and is already acknowledging Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip are probably the favorites.

"We'll have to deal with the No. 8 [Earnhardt] and No. 15 [Waltrip]," Rudd said, "but after that, we've got as good a chance as anyone."

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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