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Associated Press

Ricky Rudd knew success wouldn't come right away when he joined Wood Brothers Racing after three years with Robert Yates. His new team, after all, had won one race in the past nine seasons, and that victory in 2002 was more than a little flukish.

But in what could become a perfect marriage between a veteran driver with high expectations and a team richer in history than it is in recent results, Rudd and his team will head into the middle third of the season expecting to start making noise.

The last six race results might look a whole lot better if Rudd hadn't qualified poorly at Talladega and found himself in the middle of a 27-car accident, and if late-race mishaps hadn't derailed likely top-10 runs at Martinsville and Richmond.

Instead of the top 10 in points, where he finished in each of the last three seasons driving for Yates, Rudd is 22nd after 11 of 36 Winston Cup events as the series heads to Lowe's Motor Speedway. Rudd has never won at Charlotte, N.C., in 53 starts.

But he sees signs that his fortunes are improving.

"Realistically, you take that fourth place at Bristol, which was a good run, and a decent run at Martinsville," he said, laying out a model of progression.

"First you've got to be logging top-10 finishes on a regular basis. Then you go from the top tens into the top fives, and then you can seriously talk about winning."

Bristol counts so far as the only top-10 finish for the famed No. 21 Ford, but Rudd was running seventh when he spun late at Martinsville and wound up 11th. He also was running in the top 10 at Richmond when he got nudged in the slick third turn and crashed 15 laps from the finish. Quickly, a strong run became a 34th-place finish.

"We're getting there. We just need to step up the pace a little bit," said Rudd, a Chesapeake, Va., native with 23 career victories in NASCAR's premier series.

It is expectations like those, and the Wood Brothers' decision to hire a proven winner instead of a promising youngster in the offseason, that caused the Stuart, Va.-based team to seek more financial backing over the winter, and to start spending it.

First, sponsors Motorcraft and Ford increased their commitment. Then the Woods did, hiring an engineer to augment help they get from Jack Roush's stable of wizards.

The early season also has been a time for developing chemistry. Rudd brought most of his team with him when he joined Yates, but had an all-new group this year.

"We're working a little bit better together," Rudd said. "(Crew chief) Pat Tryson is starting to learn me a little bit, and I'm learning them and learning the race cars.

"I think it's going to continue to get a little bit better as we go along. I don't think any of us anticipated we would have been, performance-wise, as far off as we were when we started, so we've made big gains. But we're still not where we need to be."

Rudd was among the last of the single-car owner-drivers. He won races in each of his six years wearing both hats, so he brings a unique perspective to the Wood Brothers, who some have viewed as a casualty of the escalating cost of racing.

Co-owner Eddie Wood appreciates Rudd's background.

"He really fits well here," Wood said. "He's had his own team, so been there, done that. He's used to having some engineers around. So far, it's working pretty well. We don't have a lot to show for it yet, but we're pretty close."

The Wood brothers' last of 97 victories came in 2001 at Bristol, essentially when Elliott Sadler stayed out during pit stops to preserve track position and showed all Winston Cup teams that a new Goodyear tire was far more durable than anyone knew.

Rudd now likes to think about pushing the team closer to 100 wins.

"I think the proof's in the pudding and we've got to go out there and post some wins, post some top-fives and do that on a regular basis to be able to sit back and say, 'Yeah, we're enjoying this,' " he said. "Right now, I don't care where you are in this garage area - if you're not running up to your expectations or the public's expectations, it can get pretty frustrating. It's nothing a good win wouldn't fix."

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

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