Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday May 28, 2007
It was the ultimate upset in the making.
There things were - three laps from putting NASCAR's longest race in the books Sunday night - and on a leaderboard that left you thinking twice as to whether there was a scoring malfunction, none other than Kyle Petty was in position to go to Victory Lane. If just Casey Mears and J.J. Yeley ran out of gas on the final lap, Petty would end a winless streak that stretched over a dozen years.
More importantly, he'd pull off a miracle he's been pushing for seven.
At this point, the sob story turned inspiration of Adam Petty has been ingrained into everyone hearts and minds that follow this sport. Petty's death in May of 2000 sparked a yearlong period of trauma that in nine months cost us Cup driver Kenny Irwin, Jr., Truck Series driver Tony Roper, and arguably the biggest Cup driver the sport has ever known, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. In the aftermath came HANS devices and soft walls and driver safety initiatives; of course, none of those ever had the power to bring back the youngster prepped and ready to carry on the Petty legacy.
Instead, Adam's the one whose legacy lives on in spirit with the No. 45 car, with his father deciding to drive it in his honor since the beginning of 2001. It hasn't been easy; for most of this decade, Petty has toiled long and hard to get a team once destined for greatness simply capable of being competitive week in, week out. Throughout the process, Petty has said his motivation comes from honoring his son, a quest to take the vaunted No. 45 to Victory Lane in a special tribute to all Adam's accomplishments.
Well, after several years, time to make that special moment happen is quickly running out. Petty himself is just two weeks away from joining the TNT broadcast booth for their six race coverage of Cup racing this season; it's a small step towards Kyle getting out of the cockpit he's held onto for so long in the face of increasing responsibilities and age getting in the way of his focus. Meanwhile, honoring his son has come out in different ways during the years, with the construction and grand opening of the Victory Junction Gang Camp for terminally ill children, the Pettys' shining light of triumph. At this point, Petty is getting to the place in his career where he's so successful everywhere else in his life he doesn't need to drive, and Petty Enterprises may be better off in the end if he doesn't drive anymore.
But that doesn't make him stepping out of the driver's seat any easier on the future.
Longtime fans know the impact of what will happen when Kyle Petty finally does retire. For the first time since NASCAR was conceived, we would go a full season without seeing the Petty name on the final results sheet of any Nextel Cup event. That's right up there with the Unsers, Andrettis, and Foyts pulling out of the Indy 500 at exactly the same time. NASCAR has and always will be deeply rooted in Petty, and to see him transitioning away from the cockpit gives us all a sense of sadness that an entire racing family - the winningest NASCAR Racing family, in fact – is now no longer an integral part of racing on the track.
Which, in fact, brings us back to the racing at hand. With the clock ticking down, Petty knew his fuel mileage would be close but gambled anyway. With Mears and Yeley no guarantees to make the finish themselves, you couldn't help but think of the possibilities that would ensue if Petty did make Victory Lane. There wouldn't be enough room to handle the well-wishers; pit road would be closed out of pure jubilation.
Most importantly, you realize the sanctity of the moment at hand. Richard Petty leading the field at Daytona in 1992. Darrell Waltrip starting second at Indianapolis in 2000. With drivers past their prime, we're trained so much to criticize the bad that when the good happens, it's hard to put it in context. But most of all, you think of Adam. I think of Adam at 18, wonder what he would be like today. He would be the same age as me, entering the prime of his career with a team that backed him 110%. Winning races would be a given; championships, who knows? I remember exactly what I was doing and where when he hit the wall and never woke up. You never forget those things when people have characteristics embodied within them that remind you of yourself, when trauma still rules the day but the horror of its consequences remain very, very real.
It's this type of situation that screams special circumstances, the type where destiny takes center stage and delivers the special moment we've all been waiting for.
Surely, after seven years a miracle was possible. After the heartbreak experienced with the loss of one's own son, somebody somewhere would cut the No. 45 a break and have all the pieces fall into place. That's what sports seems designed for : the happy ending similar to what Dale Earnhardt, Jr. experienced in July 2001, winning at the same exact place where his father got killed.
It didn't happen.
“In all honesty, it's just a race. We didn't change the world tonight," said Petty after finishing 3rd, almost trying to take out the positives. "It's just a race, and I guess I'm at that stage where it's just a race."
"My goal was not about Kyle Petty. It was about Petty Enterprises, and I think that's the bigger thing for me."
He may be right, but for so many, it wouldn't hurt to hand Kyle a piece of hardware he rightfully deserves. As he gathered himself outside the car and hugged wife Pattie preparing for interviews, the look in Pattie's eye said it all. So close. So surprising._ If onlyâ€¦ But it didn't happen, and now, in the blink of an eye, Casey Mears takes center stage.
"I couldn't be happier for Casey Mears if his name was Adam Petty," said Kyle when interviewed about Mears' victory with a smile.
Everyone else was busy wondering what might have been.
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