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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Previewing the New Veterans:

After taking most of 2006 off, two popular veterans are returning to full-time Cup rides in 2007. Ward Burton and Ricky Rudd both return to Nascar’s top series. Both have decades ofexperience winning races and finishing in the top ten in points. The problem is that past experience won’t matter as much as one might think.

In two years the sport has changed quite a bit. A new aero-package, the innovation of coil-bound springs, newly paved tracks, the Car of Tomorrow and constantly evolving tire combinations all pose a steep challenge to any driver. It’s hard enough for full-time drivers to keep up with, let alone a driver on hiatus. Rudd and Burton are veterans, but they also are in new rides. Each is stepping into a different situation, and that will greatly effect how they do in 2006.

After a year off, Ricky Rudd joined Robert Yates Racing for the second time in his career. Rudd won three races in his first stint with Yates from 2000-2002.This time Rudd's signing helps Yates out of a dire situation. As recently as Homestead, there were rumors of Yates selling part of his team and the #88 car. Now the car has full funding from Snickers and the best available driver in Rudd to wheel it.

Rudd is still a threat to win races when given good cars. An outstanding road racer (six career wins), he nearly held off Tony Stewart at Sonoma in 2005 before finishing 2nd. His best tracks are Dover, Kansas, Texas and Bristol.

He last raced for Wood Bros, so he’s familiar with Ford’s operations. He also tested for a few teams in 2006, especially on the Car of Tomorrow. Rudd also subbed for an injured Stewart at Dover last May. No one has more experience than Rudd and the fact he stayed involved with testing during his time off will help. He easily maintain a top 35 spot and give a few good runs, probably 5-6 top tens.

Rudd’s biggest contributions may come outside of his car. One project is helping teammate David Gilliland mature. He will no doubt be available for the young driver to bounce ideas and strategy off. Yates Racing is beginning to dig out of a miserable 2006. If interested, Rudd could play a role in this reconstruction in the same way Jeff Burton did at RCR.

After getting released by Haas/CNC racing near the end of 2004, Ward Burton took nearly two full years off. He did some television work plus several wildlife conservation projects. Realizing he still wanted to race, in 2006 he began talking to different teams about returning. During the summer Burton was rumored to join several top teams including Yates. When the offers dried up, Burton joined Morgan-McClure. He raced three times at the end of 2006 and will drive full time in 2007.

Burton admitted the time off cost him. Getting reacquainted with the technology is the largest task during the offseason. Unfortunately that might be the least of his troubles. The #4 car hasn't been competitive for years. Since 2000, the team has two top tens. They failed to qualify for six races in 2006 and couldn't even net a top fifteen finish. One necessary upgrade is the engine program. Scott Wimmer suffered 3 failures during 2006 in the 4 car.

Like many one-car teams, they also struggled with full-time sponsorship. The immensely popular Burton should help in that area too. State Water Heaters is signed on for 2007.

On the track, Burton’s foremost challenge is making races. With no owner's points, he will be fighting to simply qualify for the field. Once there, he knows how to avoid trouble and get finishes. If Burton can make 30 races it will be a successful year. One possibility for Burton is using Morgan McClure as a bridge to a better ride. He spends this year getting familiar with the scene and then finds an open seat with a multi-car team. While it is nice to see one of NASCAR's good characters back in Cup action, Burton probably won't enjoy a dream season.

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