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Only Yesterday: Kyle Petty, Underrated?

So, just to be clear before into diving into this topic, no. Kyle Petty was not the best driver in NASCAR history.

He also wasn’t the worst driver either, but you’d be excused for not knowing that. Whenever somebody brings up a list of worst NASCAR drivers or there are debates online, Petty’s name is often thrown out there with names such as Danica Patrick, Mike Borkowski, Nur Ali, the Cope twins, etc.

Those drivers, in reality, are not in the same league as the son of Richard Petty.

In order to get a full perspective on Kyle Petty’s career, it might be easiest to divide it into three parts: the beginning, middle, and end. Obviously, this can be done for any driver in history. But the reality is that nobody else’s NASCAR Cup Series career really can be divided into such obvious extremes.

In 1979, Petty’s career began with a win in the ARCA Menards Series race at Daytona International Speedway. Yes, this was his very first competitive race of any kind, not even having a late model start prior to his big debut. The reasoning behind this was simple: There was a belief that NASCAR would eventually simply do away with short tracks as the sport grew, so what was the point of spending that time developing a driver on short tracks if most of their career would be on big tracks? At least, this was the thinking of Richard Petty at the time, who made this particular call about his son’s career.

This quote from “The King,” from Mark Bechtel’s book He Crashed Me So I Crashed Him Back, explains the thought process here in full:

“Here’s the way I’m looking at it,” Richard explained. “If a man’s got 20 years of experience on short tracks, makes no difference.

“When he gets to Daytona, he’s a rookie. He’s got to learn about running 180 to 190 miles per hour. He’s got to learn about drafting. He’s got to learn about crosswinds. What he has learned on a half-mile dirt or a quarter-mile asphalt [track] is good for nothing. And the future of [Cup] racing is the superspeedways. That’s where the money is. That’s where the television’s going to be. That’s where the sponsors want to be. And that’s where you want to be.”

This plan came to full fruition in August of that very year, where 19-year-old Kyle Petty made his very first Cup start at Talladega Superspeedway. Today, NASCAR would never allow anything like this to happen, even if the driver was theoretically quite literally the “Prince of NASCAR.” Incredibly, Petty finished ninth that day, and would make four more starts that year mostly running his father’s year old uncompetitive Dodges.

The next year, Petty would up his schedule to 15 Cup starts, mainly at the big money races to justify Petty Enterprises wheeling out a second car. He then ran the first of full-time season of his career in 1981. He didn’t win anything, but the driver who entered that season as a 20-year-old whose on-track resume was almost entirely 20 Cup starts would end that season 12th in points, with 10 top-10 finishes. This is insane considering everybody racing full-time in Cup at that point generally had at least a decades worth of experience on him racing really just about anything.

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In 1982, Petty would have a setback, having 16 DNFs in 29 races and mainly racing for Hoss Ellington in the second half of the season. 1983 and 1984 would be tough years for Petty Enterprises, as Richard Petty left the team to drive for Mike Curb. Kyle Petty would be left behind, only scoring eight top ten finishes in those two years. After 1984, Petty took his sponsor 7-Eleven and, like his father, left for greener pastures. In this case, Wood Brothers Racing.

And thus, Petty moved on to the middle portion of his career. There’s not a lot to write about here except that hey, he was pretty darn good. He’d score all eight of his career victories in the 11 seasons spanning 1985-1995, and all five of his top-10 finishes in points. Since Neil Bonnett left the team in 1982, Petty is the only driver to date to have won multiple races for them, including a Coca-Cola 600 win in 1987 that doesn’t get a lot of mentions today.

In 1989, Petty would leave the Wood Brothers and saddle up instead with a brand new race team: SABCO Racing, owned by Felix Sabates. The black Mello Yello car is one of the defining cars of the early 1990’s in NASCAR, and Petty would live up to it in 1992, when he had a career season: 970 laps led, 17 top-10 finishes in 29 starts, the only year he won multiple races, and a fifth place in the point standings.

People forget that, as Richard Petty wheeled up to the line for the final race of his career, his son Kyle was just 98 points back from points leader Davey Allison. It would have taken a miracle, but it was definitely possible.

He followed this up in 1993 with another fifth-place finish in points. Very few drivers in NASCAR history can say they finished in the top five in points, compared to the thousands who have attempted a NASCAR race. Even less can say they did it twice in their career, and two straight years? That’s legitimately an impressive accomplishment, and again one that only a handful of drivers can lay claim to.

In all, Petty would win six races for Sabates, with only Joe Nemechek able to win for the Cuban businessman before Sabates would sell controlling interest in the team to Chip Ganassi years later.

Then the drop-off happened. Suddenly, Petty was 30th in points in 1995, and scored what ended up being his final Cup win. After that year, essentially from 1996 until the end of his career, Petty was not the same driver.

Petty’s lone finish inside the top 20 in points in that span was 1997, his first of two years as an owner-driver. Then after a bad 1998 season where he finished 30th in points again, Petty would merge his operation with Petty Enterprises and become PE’s CEO.

Then, tragedy.

Adam Petty perished in a wreck at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000. It was essentially the end of his father’s competitive career.

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Petty would finish 22nd in points in 2002, but a combination of being in his 40’s and the slow death of Petty Enterprises in his son’s absence just had him making starts at that point. Petty would get out of the car in 2007 to commentate on TNT’s NASCAR coverage, then only make 15 starts in 2008 before Petty Enterprises merged in the off-season with Evernham-Gillette Motorsports. The resulting company, Richard Petty Motorsports, would not carry Kyle on, and his driving career effectively ended in favor of a media career that has continued to this day on NBC.

So, why does Kyle Petty get such a bad rep as a driver today?

Well, there was essentially a perfect storm here.

First and foremost, look at the 1979 rookie class headliners:

Dale Earnhardt Sr., who infamously chose racing over completing high school.

Terry Labonte, the youngest of the bunch at 23, had already spent years racing short tracks in Texas.

Harry Gant, a 39-year-old late model legend who was only a rookie in NASCAR’s eyes.

Back then, Cup was often the final place in a driver’s career. Jody Ridley won the Rookie of the Year award in 1980 at 38 years old. Ron Bouchard won a track championship at Seekonk Speedway in 1967, 14 years before being the top rookie in Cup. 47-year-old Jimmy Hensley won the award in 1992. Most infamously, Rusty Wallace would win the 1989 Cup championship as his mentor, Dick Trickle, would win Rookie of the Year honors as a 48-year-old who had taught Wallace everything he knew.

It was a much different time from say the ’90s, when team owners started looking young with the explosion of Jeff Gordon onto the scene. So a young driver getting these Cup chances and not being fast ASAP had to leave a sour taste in a lot of fan’s mouths, in addition to not living up to the impossible standards that his father and grandfather set.

Then he essentially spent years just showing up to Cup races and puttering around. That has hurt plenty of driver’s legacy.

People don’t think of Darrell Waltrip as this fast talking driver who won at Bristol seven-straight times and was a three-time champion, he was the guy who spent eight years not winning before retiring as an old man. It’s an unfair assumption to make about people, but it did hurt Petty’s legacy.

A lot of people have compared Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Petty and, yeah, no. Earnhardt was a better driver than Petty. But Earnhardt also had much more experience and development prior to his Cup career, seat time that Petty just didn’t have.

Nobody seriously thinks Petty would have been anywhere near his father if he had that development time. But Petty definitely would have had a better career if he came up today.

Again, Petty is not the best driver ever. But it’s unfair when even he makes jokes about himself. If his name were Jim Brooks, I absolutely think he’d be remembered much more warmly as a corner stone of that early 90’s era; think kind of like how we think of Sterling Marlin today.

He wouldn’t get a vote from me for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but that’s fine because there are literally thousands upon thousands of drivers who I can say that about. Just a nomination, though? Well, if Jeff Burton can get nominated, so should Kyle Petty.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 15 years and began covering the sport five years ago. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and a proud member of the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA).

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Bill B

I agree that he hurt his legacy by sticking around too long but if someone asked me who the worst driver in NASCAR history was, his name wouldn’t even enter my mind (and I only got to see him drive during his declining years). I can’t believe anyone else would either. There are so many drivers that have come and gone through the years that didn’t even win that it negates anyone with even 1 win from being considered as worst ever.

Now if you asked the question; “Of all the father/son drivers to have raced in NASCAR, which was the worst?”. Perhaps Kyle’s name would enter your mind but that’s just because he’s well known. I am sure there are father son tandems that have competed through the years that were worse, we just don’t remember them.

Last edited 25 days ago by Bill B
Jeremy

I don’t know for sure, but I always felt he was setting up PE for Adam to take the reigns and that he would simply run the business once Adam and the team was somewhat stabilized. When Adam had the accident, I think all the weight of PE was on his shoulders (or he felt like it was?) so he had to do what he had to do to try and make it.

Johnny Cuda

Not only Petty Enterprises, but Dodge was probably counting on Adam for a bright future.

george webster

I remember when, at Talladega, Kyle said as much: That he was still racing to keep a seat warm for his son and that he, Kyle, was going to then focus on running the legacy team of Petty enterprises (while his father settled into retirement a condo out west).
That scenario never came to be. Adam’s death meant that Kyle had to keep on racing as the Petty team’s only driver and Richard never let go of the controls and, under his leadership, the team eventually spiraled into nothing. When Petty joined forces with Evernham-Gillette Motorsports, all he was selling was his name. The failure to include the CEO Kyle Petty in the new team shows that there was really no Petty part of the new team but Richard’s name. Despite the fact that teams continue to use Petty’s name and Richard is still around to sign autographs, Petty’s ownership (and, I suspect, a big part of the relationship between father and son) ended on the day that the sale fo the team name to Evernham-Gillette Motorsports was announced at the pre-season media tour .

Bill B

That’s the way I remember it too and it pretty much was the final straw for PE and Kyle.

Johnny Cuda

My dad, my brother (Chrysler employee), my nephew and I had the pleasure of meeting Kyle at the Chrysler World Headquarters and Technology Center in Auburn Hills in June 2002 on the Friday before the Michigan race. We had a great conversation with him. A really nice guy.

Charlie

Kyle Petty was a good driver. It is kind of funny to ready where Dale Jr., had the added pressure of being Dale Sr., son. When Kyle entered the sport, he was the King’s son, a legacy, who had every move scrutinized. He learned and knew how to do body work, engine work, chassis development. He knew the business end, and is, to this day, a great ambassador for the sport.
He owned Rockingham, did well at Pocono, was a good road-racer and was involved in the crash as Davy Allison crossed the finish line at the first night race at a speedway.
He suffered the loss of his son. But some don’t remember he was in the pits when Randy Owen was killed by a tank exploding.
How do you know he was a good driver, I think the drivers who raced with him, many Hall of Famers, respected his ability.
Geeks who live in basements, or think the sport began with Dale SR., or are totally ignorant of the sport’s true history, or just plain jealous, are the ones who say he is the worst. And, we forget he took some of his best years and tried to become a singer.
He had the chops. He won, and is a great ambassador for the sport.
I saw him win the Coke 600 in the Wood Car and Davey and began crashing right in front of me at the Winston. I have been attending races since 1963 and trust my judgment. He was a good driver.

John

I have no clue as to how anyone could consider Kyle Petty in the worst driver category.

DoninAjax

Kyle is a third generation driver. So are the Dillons!

DoninAjax

And both grandpas are Richards.

Ted

I find it interesting that he fared so much better once he moved out from the umbrella of his father, and his fathers team. Then he seemed to just not care once his son died. Not necessarily trying to sympathize for the millionaire, but it is interesting to notice the dangers of working with family.

Tom B

Mike, great article about Kyle. I would like to read a detailed story about Kyle vs Dale Jr addressing the pressures and what was expected and their popularity. They had similar lives but different personalities. Losing a son is devastating for your life.
I was at the ARCA race with Kyle winning with an aero dynamic brick shaped Dodge Magnum. Even though Kyle had the fastest car, it still takes talent to win at Daytona in your first race. Nobody dominated Rockingham like Kyle as I remember.

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