CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After 31 seasons and 786 consecutive starts, Ricky Rudd is just about done racing.
Rudd said Tuesday he's stepping aside from full-time Nextel Cup racing after this season, bringing an end to an "Iron Man" streak of starts that began in 1981.
"I have not taken a vacation or sick day in nearly 30 years of racing, and with my contract with the Wood Brothers expiring at the end of this race season, it seemed like the perfect time to step back and take a break," Rudd said.
The 49-year-old Rudd said he made up his mind to leave the No. 21 Ford fielded by the Wood Brothers at the end of this season. But recent talks with car owner Roger Penske left him open to driving one more year.
Penske was looking for a driver for the No. 2 Dodge for one year in case Kurt Busch couldn't get a release from his contract with Roush Racing.
Reigning series champion Busch finally got the release Monday, and Rudd was no longer needed by Penske.
"I had previously turned down several other opportunities to drive for teams and owners I respect, but the Penske opportunity was unique," Rudd said. "In my view, however, the way this has worked out is to everyone's benefit."
Rudd made his NASCAR debut in 1975 and completed his first full season two years later, winning rookie of the year honors in 1977. He has 23 career victories and finished a career-best second in the standings in 1991 while driving for Rick Hendrick.
Three years later, he became one of the first drivers to attempt to field his own car when the sport was making the shift toward big budget, multi-car teams.
Rudd spent six frustrating seasons as his own boss, and the endeavor cost him wins in the prime of his career. Although he won the prestigious Brickyard 400 in 1997 as his own car owner, he steadily slid in the standings and finished 31st in the points in 1999 — his final season fielding his own team.
He then folded the team and joined Robert Yates Racing, where he spent three seasons in the No. 28 Ford and was once again a contender. He left Yates at the end of the 2002 season to drive for the Wood Brothers, one of NASCAR's pioneer teams.
At the time, Rudd made it clear he was looking to scale back the numerous off-track obligations required of today's drivers, and he spurned offers from bigger teams because of the demands. The Wood Brothers received help from Ford board member Edsel Ford to persuade Rudd to join their team.
He'll probably be replaced next season by Kenny Schrader, but the Wood Brothers had no immediate announcement.
"I still have the desire and ability to win races, but a little burnout is beginning to set in," Rudd said Tuesday. "I may drive a few races next year if someone needs a substitute driver, but it's time to freshen up and do some things with my family that I have put off for a lot of years."
Rudd will make his 787th consecutive Cup start this week at Phoenix International Raceway. He became NASCAR's reigning "Ironman" when he broke Terry Labonte's record of 655 consecutive starts in 2002.
Rudd will forever be recognized as a symbol of NASCAR's earlier days, when drivers struggled to break into the top series, and once there did everything possible to race each weekend. It meant fighting through every ache and pain, broken bone or torn muscle to get behind the wheel.
"The early years were real tough — we raced when we could scrape up enough money to race, which was not very often in the beginning," he said. "We traveled all around the country in a pickup truck pulling an open trailer with one racecar.
"We slept five or six to a hotel room, tore down engines in the hotel room, ate more fast food than I care to remember, but somehow made it work. I will always be grateful to my family, who had enough faith in me to spend all those years trying to put together a race team."