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Thompson in Turn 5: It’s Not Personal, It’s About Performance – Kyle Petty’s Time to Step Down

The latest news out of Petty Enterprises Inc. has Chad McCumbee penciled in to drive the No. 45 Dodge in place of Kyle Petty at Pocono. This is the second unscheduled absence in as many weeks by the 30-year NASCAR Cup veteran, and very possibly an indication that his career as a driver may abruptly be coming to a close. The 48-year-old Petty, who for the second year in a row took six races off to be a color analyst for TNT’s Sprint Cup broadcasts, had also been scheduled to race last week at Indianapolis. Instead, two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte – who relieved Petty during his TV sabbatical – drove the car in what was an apparent last-minute decision by team management. Neither Petty nor the organization that he once ran as well as drove for has seen fit to publicly comment ever since, apart from a schedule released Tuesday that put Petty back behind the seat of the No. 45 at Watkins Glen. But Labonte was also revealed as a substitute for Michigan the following week, with future driving plans for the program left up in the air. At the very least, the son of stock car legend Richard Petty appears far from a lock to drive for the team in 2009 – or even for the rest of 2008.

Petty Enterprises Inc. partnered with Boston Ventures earlier this year, with the private equity firm acquiring controlling interest of the two-car organization. Previously, PE had been a family-owned and operated race team for almost 60 years. However, just last month a Board of Directors was put in place along with an infusion of cash from the new partner, and they are now responsible for the team’s business decisions – not the Pettys themselves. That management change – while good for the long-term health of the program – may very well have sealed Kyle’s fate as a driver.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this turn of events is that Kyle Petty may not be able to leave the sport as he would have liked. It would have been preferable for the well-liked and respected wheelman to be able to leave the seat of his beloved No. 45 under more dignified circumstances. Instead, it appears that he will leave due to a cold and dispassionate business calculation, abruptly pushed aside as part of a corporate reshuffling – a cruel reminder of the state of the NASCAR Cup Series today.

But business is business, and in the boardroom you have to be able to showcase successful results on the racetrack. That’s a problem for Petty, who has yet to score a top-20 finish in nine starts behind the wheel of the No. 45 this year. Indeed, years of driver struggle have made it no secret that his long career was growing shorter. Even Petty himself seems to have been fully aware of that fact all along, testing the retirement waters as a television personality and busying himself for a number of years with the establishment and expansion of the Victory Junction Gang Camp, a charitable endeavor for children with serious health issues. It’s a project that Kyle, along with his wife Patti, embarked on in honor of their son Adam Petty, an aspiring Cup driver killed in an on-track accident in 2000.

Cynics may argue that Kyle’s departure from NASCAR’s highest ranks is long overdue, and point to his relative non-competitiveness as a driver over the years as justification. In their defense, Petty has not distinguished himself on the track in well over a decade. Armed with the numbers that show no wins since 1995 and only eight wins in more than 820 starts since his first NASCAR Cup race in 1979, those people certainly have a point behind their pointed criticism. In fact, Kyle Petty has not cracked the top 10 in points since a pair of fifth-place finishes in the driver standings in 1992 and 1993, respectfully. Automobile racing to the average fan of the sport is about winning; that is the bottom line come race day. To that end, it is virtually inarguable that Petty has not measured up to those expectations, and that he should have already been sidelined for a more competitive driver. As late as the end of last season, when a litany of late stumbles left Petty hanging on the ragged edge of the Top 35 in points, there were rumors he would hang it up before the beginning of 2008.

But he didn’t, and this season has been no better for Petty and his team. Twice this year, at Martinsville and Phoenix, the veteran has failed to qualify for races after losing his battle to hold onto a “locked-in” qualifying spot within the Top 35. And in the nine races that Petty has competed in, his season’s best finishes are only a 27th at Richmond and a 28th at Bristol, a performance trend that is far worse than even his more recent years of struggle. Presently, the No. 45 car is mired in 41st in the owners’ championship standings, and is more than 270 points out of the coveted Top 35.

That’s put the organization itself in a difficult spot; for no matter how popular Petty remains off the track, his team needs to put far more acceptable results on it. NASCAR Sprint Cup racing is big business, and it requires huge infusions of sponsorship dollars to teams for them to be able to compete. Lucrative sponsors are almost impossible to come by when a team cannot demonstrate an ability to qualify for races and run competitively. Like it or not, that is the harsh reality of modern-day Cup racing – and Kyle Petty simply has not convinced the new management at PE that he is the driver capable of putting the No. 45 Dodge where it needs to be to attract the needed financial support.

But there’s nostalgia and sadness surrounding a decision you never want anyone else to have to make. Until recently, Petty Enterprises was first about a family of racers. It was a shop in Level Cross, N.C., next to the family homestead where Kyle’s grandfather, father and Kyle were able to do what they loved to do. It’s a family racing business that, had he lived, Adam Petty would have one day worked and drove for. Maybe as a frontrunner… maybe not. It’s unfortunately a mute point now, and in that regard, NASCAR could be on the verge of losing the last true historic bridge to its past. Kyle’s grandfather, Lee Petty, was around at the very beginnings in the late 1940s, rising to prominence with three Cup titles and the first ever 500-mile victory down in Daytona Beach. That famous connection continued through his father’s record setting career and up to today – with Kyle continuing to represent the family in the sport of American stock car racing with class, dignity and unquestioned honor.

Kyle Petty has never come close to equaling either his father or grandfather’s on-track accomplishments. But what he has done is continue the long tradition of honest, hardworking drivers, like his namesakes and others that the sport has built its clean-cut family friendly reputation on. In doing so, he’s played perhaps the most important role of the three – helping to catapult it into a major sports entity in America. Should his time as a Sprint Cup driver come to an end, it will be the end of a legacy for NASCAR that has always seen a member of the Petty clan competing as a driver every year since their inception in 1949.

Statistics aside, NASCAR is better off for having had Kyle Petty behind the wheel and all that he brings as a good citizen and gentleman to the sport. He’s had a long run… one that some may say was way too long. But no one can claim that Petty has not become a first-class example of how a man should conduct himself in good times, trying times, and tragic times – with his life a series of intense ups and downs.

Unfortunately for Kyle, one of those downer moments is right around the corner; because now, PE must move on or be left behind by its competitors. Owners already have come to the realization that to survive in NASCAR, you have to put the best driver available in the best equipment that can be provided at all times. The sport is more unforgiving than ever, and brownie points for owner loyalty to a driver alone will not pay the rapidly mounting bills at the shop. The bottom line these days is all about performance, and let’s face it: Kyle Petty has not performed.

Should this be the end of this man’s racing career, there will be no need for remorse on his part. Kyle Petty’s been fortunate to have been able to do what he so clearly enjoys to do for so long; and for the sport, it has been great to simply have him around. But for the man himself, he may have no choice but to finally read the writing on the wall – two words, in large black letters, the likes of which no athlete ever wants to read out loud.

It’s time.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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