Ricky Rudd went looking for a multi-million dollar deal and ended up finding one in the parking lot of a discount store.

One of the most awaited sagas of the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup season centered on Rudd's plans for the upcoming year. From early May until August, the racing world wondered what team Rudd would sign with, or whether the 46-year-old veteran would walk away from the sport and retire.

For all the months of legal haggling and rumors, it came down to a brief meeting with Wood Brothers Racing--not inside a posh boardroom, but inside a Ford Taurus parked outside an Indianapolis Sam's Club.

"Eddie (Wood) and his brother Len were in the front seat, and I sat in the back and we just talked about what it would take to make things work between us," Rudd says. "We talked about the little nut-and-bolt things like the personal appearances, and they let me know a couple of projects they had going on. After we got finished talking, Eddie told me he was going to go work on it and he ended up making it happen."

Within a few weeks, a news conference was called and Rudd signed on the dotted line. He'll drive the No. 21 Motorcraft Ford for three years, starting with the 2003 season. Sources say Rudd will earn more than $3 million per season. While Rudd's odyssey ended, his deal helped settle some questions about where various other drivers would be in 2003. With the marquee name finally inked, other teams could focus their efforts on other available talent.

The Meeting

Rudd's future became an issue back in the spring, when he grumbled about all the attention focused on the sport's young drivers, and indicated that he might retire at the end of the 2002 season. Later, Rudd caught wind that Elliott Sadler, who now drives for the Wood brothers, would be moving to Rudd's home turf at Robert Yates Racing. That spelled the beginning of the end for Rudd's tenure with Robert Yates, as he and the car owner exchanged barbs and everything but a contract extension.

Speculation then focused on Rudd taking the No. 28 and Havoline sponsorship somewhere else, possibly a third team to be fielded by Chip Ganassi.

The Wood brothers, knowing that Sadler was leaving their team at the end of the season, threw their name in the hat in mid-July, after a day of testing for the Brickyard 400. In typical low-key, Wood Brothers Racing style, Eddie Wood arranged a meeting for inside his Taurus.

"It was as simple a conversation as I'm having with you right now. It was a conversation among friends," Eddie Wood says. "Everything was thrown out on the table as far as what the team and driver wanted from each other. We sat and talked to see if something could be worked out. It really was rather simple. Then things cooled down when the talks of Ricky driving for Ganassi came back again. At that point we thought it just wasn't going to work out for us. Then all of a sudden, things started to fall back into place. It was like the stars lined up for us all. It was a long summer, but it has all worked out."

Rudd says the parking lot meeting made sense, given the circumstances and all the attention focused on his future.

"It's just very, very hard to maintain privacy in this sport," Rudd says. "It's not like we were trying to keep this secret from the world, but if any information got out at the wrong time it could have killed the potential deal. It's the one thing in racing I don't like. It's a necessary way to conduct business, but it's not the way I prefer to do things. The bottom line was I wanted to make sure I ended up with the right team."

The deal boiled down to a situation in which Rudd and Sadler simply traded race teams.

"The way it all shook out, everybody concerned is happy and where they want to be," Wood says. "Everybody has gotten what they wanted. There were a lot of times when we as a family team looked at each other and asked, 'Is this thing ever going to work out for us?' But it did. Plus, it worked out in a way where Elliott Sadler is getting what he wants by driving for Yates next year and Ricky is getting the chance he wanted to drive for us. Now everybody can move on and worry about racing again."

What Happened?

Rudd says he has been left with some dissatisfaction because of how things fell apart with the famed No. 28 Havoline team and Yates. He had imagined he would drive for them until retirement.

When word broke that Sadler was bringing the M&M's sponsorship to Yates to drive for a new team, talks of a third team led Rudd to believe he would still have a position within the organization.

"Probably what caused this to drag on for so long was some information I got back in May," Rudd says. "I was told, 'Ricky, we've decided to make a change and bring in Elliott Sadler to drive for us with a new sponsor.' My contract with Yates was coming to an end at the end of the year so they really didn't owe me an explanation, but it would have been nice to know there wasn't a place for me with the team since May. I had a great race team, and I didn't just want to walk away from it if there was any hope of continuing it. I was told there were going to be three teams at Yates next year, not that it was a two-team deal with me not in the picture."

Rudd says the ongoing saga with Yates is what played a major factor in him having to wait so late this season before he was able to finally settle his plans.

"I ended up taking the fall in the deal," Rudd says. "I wish that hadn't happened because it would have made everybody's life easier like all the other teams and drivers that were waiting to sign their own deals. The only thing I regret is how the scenario unfolded. Everybody was reporting that I was taking the No. 28 with me, but I had absolutely no control over that number. I respect what Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan, and Kenny Irwin did with that number, so I didn't feel like it was mine to take. That was never part of the deal."

Seeking Options

Rudd had a plate full of options to continue racing. The most likely looked like he would be driving a Dodge for a third Ganassi team. Ganassi currently fields Dodges for Sterling Marlin and Jimmy Spencer.

"With all the talks that went on with Chip Ganassi and myself, it did look like I would be driving for him next year," Rudd says. "But in the end, Chip and I simply couldn't come to final terms, and believe me, we tried. I guess we just couldn't agree on some of the smaller nuts and bolts of the contract. That was the sticking point. We tried to put a contract together, but we worked for three weeks and simply couldn't come to terms."

Rudd says his family time was something he wasn't willing to sacrifice because of numerous sponsor commitments that Ganassi would have required. In addition to wife Linda, Rudd has 8-year-old son Landon.

"I value the time I get to spend with my family, but I was going to lose more of that time than I wanted to," Rudd says. "The personal appearances weren't the only issue. It was that even on my weekends off, I would have still been on-call. I couldn't have scheduled a vacation with my family on an off-weekend. To a lot of drivers, their kids are grown so that really isn't an issue with them. That was one of my sticking points."

According to sources, another problem in Rudd's contract negotiations with both Yates and then Ganassi was Rudd's asking price of $2.5 million to $3 million per season plus 50-percent of the race winnings. Rudd won't discuss specifics of his new contract.

"Let me just say I wanted fair compensation, and I'm not getting into the details," he says. "I didn't ask for a Winston Cup championship driver's salary. I didn't ask for a Top-3 driver salary or even probably Top-5. Don't get me wrong because I'm not cheap and I wanted all I could get."

Rudd says that if the proper opportunity didn't work out to drive for a winning team, he would have retired from the sport that has consumed his life since 1975.

Ford Steps In

All parties involved agree that Ford officials played a critical role in keeping Rudd within the Blue Oval brigade. Ford was still reeling from the loss of both Bill Elliott and Jeremy Mayfield to the Dodge camp, and the higher powers wanted to make sure they didn't let another top driver switch manufacturers. The message to Wood Brothers Racing was clear-- get Ricky Rudd, regardless of the price.

"The people at Ford are the ones responsible for making this happen," Eddie Wood says. "It was a group that wanted one thing and that was for Ricky Rudd to drive the No. 21 car, and they made it happen. I wanted to get it done before something else happened that would have thrown another scenario into the mix." Rudd says he was surprised that Ford stepped in along with sponsor Motorcraft to come up with the kind of money he was asking for.

"All I can say is, as the driver, they didn't get me cheap," Rudd says. "I didn't cut my price. I sat down and told them I wanted the same thing that I had told every other car owner. I've had some car owners that came up and told me, 'I can pay you more than that,' and I said, 'No, I'm not asking for more than that. Pay me what fair market value is. If you've got more money, put it in a bonus fund for the crew or something.'"

When Wood mentioned to Motorcraft that a deal with Rudd could be worked out, much like Ford they instantly wanted to do whatever possible to strike a deal between the Virginia driver and Virginia race team.

"When Ricky became available, that's who we wanted," Wood says. "Like I mentioned, the deal would go away and come back. It would go away and come back. Then I got a call from Motorcraft and they told me, 'If you can get Ricky, we're committed. You go do it.' I got on the phone right then and called Ricky. I said, 'We can do it, you just tell me how.' That shows the dedication Ford and Motorcraft are giving Ricky and our team. Now we're going to take it all forward and make it happen with this operation."

High Expectations

The pressure is now on Wood Brothers Racing to improve a program that has scored only one victory in the last nine years. The history behind the team is a great and storied one, with past drivers including David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, and Neil Bonnett.

Because of the fact that Wood Brothers Racing gets engines and shares technology with Roush Racing, Rudd sees bright days on the horizon. He thinks the Wood Brothers team is capable of getting back to winning on a consistent basis.

"My number one priority was to get with a team that could win races right out of the box and could challenge for a championship, and these guys can do it," Rudd says. "This is an operation that has been under construction and continued to get stronger and stronger. This team wants to win as badly as I do. When I think of determination and perseverance, I think about the Wood brothers. They're a tough group of people and they want to win."

Eddie Wood sums up this year's silly season soap opera perfectly: "Fortunately, it all worked out for everybody," he says. "Everything always works out in the end. People asked us after Elliott Sadler announced he was leaving our team, 'What's going to happen now?' and I said, 'It would work out.' "Things always work out for some reason."

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