As we head into the night race at Bristol this Saturday, it’s only logical to think back to the spring race to figure out who will be the drivers left standing come Saturday night at 11:30 or so. But if you’re looking for who won Bristol last April, there’s more than one answer: this year’s spring race at Bristol had two winners. The first one was easy to figure out; Kevin Harvick’s Goodwrench Chevrolet sat smack in the middle of victory lane, shortly after ending the Roush-Hendrick stranglehold on the sport for the time being, and coming up with Richard Childress’ first victory in two years. But at the other end of the garage, a different team and driver were celebrating just as much. The results showed merely an 8th-place finish, but by the smile coming from a man named Kyle, the team may well have won.
Now, the name Petty is synonymous with legend in this sport; it has been since the 1950s, and it will continue to be for generations to come. The oldest in four generations of Pettys, Lee, won the first Daytona 500 in 1959, and his three championships were the benchmark of the sport until the record was broken…by his own son. Of course, no matter what happens, Lee’s son Richard Petty will always be known as NASCAR’s Babe Ruth: the man whose skills, personality, and passion for his sport allowed it to begin the move from a regional curiosity to a national phenomenon. The 200 wins recorded by Petty blue is a record that may stand for most of the next century; with the current number of races on the schedule, it’ll be impossible to even come close.
But lately, those racecars known for their time in the winner’s circle have been just as well known for spending time at the back of the garage. Years ago, when the older Petty’s driving skills declined in the late 1980s, so did the performance of the team, and when Richard stepped out of the driver’s seat in 1992 after a 30-year career, the 43 team hadn’t found itself in victory lane in eight years, a stat thought unthinkable just a decade earlier.
However, while Richard’s driving career was fading, his son Kyle’s was coming into its prime. People who have picked up the sport in the last few years have no idea how good Kyle was while driving for Felix Sabates’ #42 team (now owned by Chip Ganassi). Starting his racing career off with an ARCA win at Daytona in 1979, much was expected from the son of the King; but for most of the 1980s, Kyle failed to deliver. Quality rides with the Wood Brothers and with Richard Petty’s team itself had not led to great results, and it seemed the son was always destined to stay in the shadows of the father. Then came a partnering with Sabates in 1989, and within a few years, the team began experiencing immediate success. Kyle was a factor in the Championship Chase in both 1992 and 1993, finishing 5th both times and turning in outstanding seasons. Six of his eight Nextel Cup wins came with Sabates from 1990 through 1995; among them victories at Dover, Pocono, and Watkins Glen.
However, the chemistry between Kyle and Sabates slowly went south, and by 1996 the team had fallen out of the Top 15 in points, leading Kyle to reunite with his father and form a second team under the Petty Enterprises name at the same time the 43 car was returning to form. That team had continued to struggle after Petty’s retirement; the initial replacement driver, Rick Wilson, lasted just one year, and it would take another handful of drivers before Bobby Hamilton restored pride to the Petty team. Finishing 9th in the 1996 Winston Cup Standings, Hamilton ended a 12-year victory drought for the Pettys by winning at Phoenix in November of that year, and bringing Richard back to victory circle as a car owner.
With Kyle’s team joining the stable for 1997, the Pettys had new hope for a return to glory. But since Hamilton’s Top 10 points finish, no one has had a better year in a Petty car. Hamilton won just once more, in 1997, before giving way to John Andretti, who won the Goody’s 500 at Martinsville in April 1999, his only win in six years for the team. As NASCAR headed into the 21st century, the famed 43 has been shut out of victory lane, following further and further behind in the competitive NASCAR field. Meanwhile, Kyle’s team has never won, and the younger Petty now has a victory drought that runs longer than his father did, with nearly a decade passing since his last win, at Dover in May 1995.
Of course, we all know that if things had gone the way they should have, Kyle likely wouldn’t be driving in 2005, with his talented son Adam entrenched as the face of Petty Enterprises. But one Nextel Cup start was all Adam would ever make, and his tragic crash at Loudon in a Busch car would break the heart of the Petty family back in 2000. After losing both Adam and patriarch Lee in the same year, the evidence for all of us became clear. Racing’s first family that many thought would go on forever had suddenly lost their invincibility.; a legend that seemed destined to be written for generations had now been cut down to the final chapters.
And so, we come to the present day living on borrowed time. Richard, retired for over a decade, has reached his mid-60s, and has turned the majority of the racing operations over to Kyle; as each day passes, the elder Petty edges ever closer to retirement. Kyle, always a role model before Adam’s death, has stepped up his Good Samaritanism off the track to build the Victory Junction Gang Camp for terminally ill children, one of the greatest charitable efforts in NASCAR history, if not throughout the entire United States in the past five years. There is no question Kyle the person is someone you want your child to look up to, and represents the positive side of the sport that should never be overlooked no matter how much criticism the sports undergoes in the modern era. However, running not one but two full-time organizations, as well as his age (44) have taken their toll on Kyle the driver. Since 1998, the highest finish for Kyle in the standings has been 22nd, and remains without a single Top 5 finish. The results have been especially dismal since Adam’s death; there is no question that if the driver wasn’t also part-owner, Kyle would have long since faded to the sidelines.
But the sponsors have stayed through the turmoil, the team continues to fight, and Kyle presses on, hoping for the one day he can enter victory lane and finally pay tribute to his fallen son. He remains one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, no matter where he finishes, and carries on his family name the best way he knows how, on the race track. One watches him run at the back and wishes he would put an end to his struggles and turn into a full-fledged owner, while at the same time realizing when Kyle leaves the starting field no other Petty will step in—- for at least the next generation, if not forever. It’s a situation no one who appreciates NASCAR tradition wants to face, and a hole in the field we can never fill. So, one secretly hopes for a medical miracle, that Kyle can race until the next generation of Pettys arrive—- even at the back of the pack.
Which is why it was good to see Kyle take a turn at the front for once. Sure, if you dug deeper into Kyle’s finishes, you could burst the balloon of hope that’s happening over at Petty Enterprises, especially when you look at what’s happened since that April afternoon. Kyle has had, to be honest, about a 25th-place car in most of the events he’s entered this year, with attrition and staying out of trouble the only reasons behind some occasional better results. But, it doesn’t matter what kind of car you have, it matters where you take the checkered flag; and last time at Bristol, the 45 team took the checkered flag in 8th place, the first Top 10 for Petty in three years.
And while the sparkle on that April finish has faded, new faces in new places always leave hope for brighter days at PE. Kyle has a new, veteran crew chief in Paul Andrews, that is used to working with an underdog team; he won the 1992 championship with Alan Kulwicki, and his expertise in all area of racing has allowed Kyle to take some of the load off owning the team and concentrate on driving. The Pettys now receive Ray Evenrham engines, so horsepower is slowly not becoming a problem. For the first time in ages, it appears that Kyle has what he needs in place to turn his team around. Let’s hope so; for at some point, even the good guys run out of time.
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