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The ‘Iron Man’ returns to help Yates Racing

    DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Ricky Rudd might end up being exactly what Robert Yates needed to save his struggling race team.
    If it pans out, the car owner has his wife to thank for getting Rudd back behind the wheel.
    As Yates struggled last season to find both a sponsor and driver to save his flagship No. 88 Ford, wife Carolyn grew tired of the stress it was putting on her husband. Even though Rudd, who spent last year in semiretirement, had offered to drive for him, Yates was dragging his feet on a deal.
    Carolyn finally snapped.
    ‘‘My wife said ‘You put Ricky Rudd in the car and get your act together and quit coming home being in such a bad mood. He’s what you need,’’’ Yates said Tuesday during preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway.
    But she didn’t stop there. When she coincidentally ran into Rudd a few days later having breakfast at a Waffle House, she hired him on the spot.
    ‘‘She calls me and says, ‘I’ve got somebody here. I just hired Ricky ... is that OK?’ And I said ‘Certainly,’’’ Yates recalled.
    So that’s how Rudd and Yates reunited for what will be their second stint together. They spent three seasons together from 2000 to 2002 when Rudd drove the No. 28 Ford to three victories and a fourth-place finish in the 2001 season standings.
    Rudd left in a nasty parting after the 2002 season and spent three years driving for the Wood Brothers before deciding to take a break after 31 grueling seasons. When he walked away, Rudd had competed in a NASCAR-record 789 Cup starts.
    Rudd spent his sabbatical tending to his farm, mowing the lawn, hanging out with his family and occasionally racing go-karts. But when Tony Stewart called on Rudd to sub for him last June, the 50-year-old realized just how much he missed the competition.
    ‘‘I don’t think the itch to race ever really left,’’ Rudd said. ‘‘I tried to keep it in check and tried not to watch too many broadcasts, tried not to listen to it on the radio.’’
    But all that time on the lawnmower — avoiding racing — actually made Rudd long to be back at the race track and earning the living that allowed him to pay someone else to cut the grass.
    ‘‘When you race, you’ve got enough money to pay somebody to do all your maintenance stuff,’’ he said. ‘‘When you quit, you have to do your own stuff and that’s probably the biggest reality check.’’
    So he started looking for a new ride, and his search led him back to Yates. The trouble was, Yates needed a sponsor to save his No. 88.
    When Dale Jarrett left at the end of the season, sponsor UPS went with him and without a replacement, Yates would have to fold his flagship team. The search stretched all the way into December, when Masterfoods USA saved the season by agreeing to puts its Snickers brand on the car.
    Carolyn Yates then hired Rudd, and the team has been scrambling to get everything in place. The process isn’t complete, evidenced by Rudd lacking logos on the firesuit and team truck he’s using at preseason testing.
    That will come, though, and Yates hopes success isn’t far behind.
    The once-proud program is coming off a horrendous season in which Jarrett and Elliott Sadler both left, two crew chiefs were fired and UPS’ withdrawal left Yates in a frantic fight to save the business.
    He hired David Gilliland to replace Sadler in the No. 38 Ford, but knew the young driver would never stand a chance in a one-car team. Yates had to have that second car, and he desperately wanted a veteran driver behind the wheel as a mentor to Gilliland.
    ‘‘It was very critical for David,’’ he said. ‘‘After hiring four or five rookie drivers, I really needed somebody who can baseline our equipment. So we made some phone calls and got back to some experience.’’
    Rudd said he’s confident that Yates will get his teams turned back around, and wouldn’t have agreed to come back if he wasn’t so sure.
    ‘‘I knew he was either going to step back and sort of retire ... or he was going to say, ‘I’m tired of being embarrassed. I’m going to roll my sleeves up and come back and make this thing better than ever,’’’ Rudd said. ‘‘That’s the Robert I saw when I met with him. It was not the Robert that was tired and worn out and I don’t know what to do.
    ‘‘He’s got a plan and he’s got some really key people that’s helping him put this thing back together.’’

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