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Air Force NASCAR revs up for new season

DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY, Fla. -- The Air Force Ford-sponsored Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford Taurus, driven by Ricky Rudd, is shown here during a practice run Feb 11.  He is preparing for the Daytona 500 race, which will be held here Feb. 15.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Larry McTighe)

DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY, Fla. -- The Air Force Ford-sponsored Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford Taurus, driven by Ricky Rudd, is shown here during a practice run Feb 11. He is preparing for the Daytona 500 race, which will be held here Feb. 15. (U.S. Air Force photo by Larry McTighe)

DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY, Fla. -- Ricky Rudd, driver of the Air Force-sponsored Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford Taurus goes over some car-handling details with his crew chief, Ben Leslie, following a practice session at the speedway Feb. 11.  They are preparing for the Daytona 500 race, which will be held here Feb. 15.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Larry McTighe)

DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY, Fla. -- Ricky Rudd, driver of the Air Force-sponsored Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford Taurus goes over some car-handling details with his crew chief, Ben Leslie, following a practice session at the speedway Feb. 11. They are preparing for the Daytona 500 race, which will be held here Feb. 15. (U.S. Air Force photo by Larry McTighe)

LAS VEGAS (AFPN) -- The Air Force will be represented in NASCAR’s biggest event when the 2004 Nextel Cup season kicks off at the Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway on Feb. 15. With some of the fastest 2004 preseason track test speeds, the Air Force-sponsored Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 NASCAR team is focused on victory in 2004.

After spending three months moving to a new home, working with a new crew chief and preparing for several new rules that accompany a new cup series, the Wood Brothers Racing team plans to deliver on the track.

“All the changes we’ve made over the past 53 years don’t equal what we’ve done in the past four months,” said Eddie Wood, who co-owns and manages the oldest continuously operating team in NASCAR along with his brother, Len Wood, and sister, Kim Hall. “We’ve moved our entire race shop from our home in Stewart, Va., to the Charlotte (N.C.) area and changed a lot of people around. We work extensively with Roush Racing and the move gives us a lot more access to Ford and Roush’s engineers.”

Besides changes in location, the team has a new leader in the pits with the addition of Ben Leslie, former crew chief for Roush Racing’s No. 6 car, driven by Mark Martin.

“It’s an honor to represent the Air Force,” Mr. Leslie said during a recent track test at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “We have an incredible group of people who did a bunch of work in off season and it is paying off so far. Everyone is enthusiastic and dedicated and the mindset is exactly where it needs to be. We’re a team that’s focused on doing the right things and making positive things happen this year for Wood Brothers, our supporters, and for Ricky (Rudd).

“Ricky is a top-notch driver and, with the talent and experience on this team, we feel like we owe it to everyone to deliver a car and support from the pits that will win at least one race and put us in the top 10 in points,” Mr. Leslie said.

The crew has already delivered. Besides their Daytona qualifier, the team posted the fastest lap in the 2004 record book for preseason testing at the Daytona International Speedway in January. Driver Ricky Rudd piloted the No. 21 Motorcraft/Air Force Ford Taurus through a 47.753-second/188.470-mph lap. The run is actually faster than Greg Biffle’s 47.774-second/188.355-mph 2004 Daytona 500 pole position lap by 0.021 seconds and 0.115 mph.

“We’ve got high expectations this year,” Mr. Rudd said. “We had some good runs last year but we weren’t as consistent as we needed to be. We identified early on what some of our weaknesses were and a lot of that came from the lack of the more aggressive technology coming into the sport. We were a step behind. It would be like the Air Force trying to develop the (F/A-22) Raptor without technical support from Lockheed, Boeing and Pratt and Whitney.

“Having Ben come onto our team has allowed us to take advantage of the new technology a little faster,” Mr. Rudd said. “He’s been working around it for so long in the Roush organization and knows what’s available. He keeps us going and has done an excellent job over the winter of taking the group we had, reorganizing them and filling some empty spaces that resulted from the move.”

Besides blending a new team together and working from a new home, the team has also been preparing for new challenges and changes in NASCAR.

“We’re dealing with a new Aero package, softer tires and new points system this year,” Len Wood said. “This changes strategies and situations tremendously. Drivers will need to get tires sooner, which will result in more leader swaps. NASCAR has also cut the rear spoiler down three-fourths of an inch, which changes the balance of the aero package tremendously.

“We’re allowed so many tests per year and are doing a lot of them early due to these changes,” Len Wood said. “Daytona was a wide open test, but going to Vegas allowed us to get jump start for Rockingham (N.C.), Las Vegas and Atlanta races and see what the new tires and aero package are going to do.”

The transition from NASCAR Winston Cup to NASCAR Nextel Cup has brought about changes in the championship points system. NASCAR will implement the 26-10 Rule where the top 10 drivers after the first 26 races of the season will compete in a 10-race shootout for the championship.

“Hopefully we can test enough early in the season to get us up into the top 10 going into the final 10 races,” Len Wood said. “We have great people and wonderful support, so we’re definitely going to step it up and do all we can to be in the final shootout.”

“I commend Wood Brothers for what they’re doing,” Mr. Rudd said. “They recognize where (the) sport is headed. Racing is becoming so technical at such a quick pace and has migrated to a pattern similar to Air Force maintenance. We have a crew chief, brake specialist, a shock specialist and engine tuners. I think everyone is going to see results on the racetrack.

“Sometimes people panic and make changes for the sake of making changes,” Mr. Rudd said. “The changes to our team during the off season were thought through and calculated. Our goals are like everybody this time of year, a championship and to win races. Obviously, we’ll take what we can get, but we’re not going to settle. We’ll shoot for every pole and every win we can get and see what we can do.”

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