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Friday, August 1, 2008

Petty shows signs he’s ready to hang up his helmet

Kyle Petty burst onto the NASCAR scene in 1979 at a time when his dad was the biggest name in the sport.
The young bushy-haired teenager won the first race he ever entered on the big stage -- an ARCA race at Daytona in 1979, the same year of the infamous backstretch fight and his father coming from third to win as a result of the accident that spurred the fight.

In the three decades since, Petty has been a well-respected fixture in NASCAR, for a variety of reasons. He never was able to live up to King Richard’s name (who could, really?), but he has had some success through the years -- amassing 8 wins, 173 top 10s and 8 poles over the years.

The reason I mention all this is that recent moves by Petty indicate he might be ready to give up his seat at the end of the season.

He has extended his summer TV-announcing break by a few races, letting Terry Labonte and others drive the #45 car in an effort, he says, to get the car closer to the top 35 in owner’s points. Kyle won’t return to the car until Watkins Glen, then he’s out again the next week at Michigan. Also, it’s been rumored Petty Enterprises has been seeking Ryan Newman’s service (though he‘d never make that move). If those overtures were made, you can bet it was to replace Petty, not start a third team.

The message is clear, even if Kyle isn’t saying it: He’s getting ready to get out. For the past several years, his performance has been lackluster -- and that’s being kind. With a new investor on board at Petty Enterprises, I’m guessing they want someone more competitive to team up with Bobby Labonte. And Kyle is probably tired of running as lapped traffic in 35th each week, and won’t put up too much of a fight.

In the long run, though, Petty’s impact will go far beyond the racetrack. His charity efforts through the Victory Junction Gang Camp (a camp for terminally and chronically ill kids), to which several NASCAR stars have donated heavily, have helped thousands of children and will continue to do so for years to come. After all these years, he is respected by pretty much all of his competitors, a testament to his character.

The real tragedy is we never got to see what Petty’s son, Adam -- who envisioned the Victory Junction camp -- could have done in Cup. Adam also won his first-ever ARCA race, just like his dad, when he was only 18. After a couple years in Busch and Trucks, he had only 1 Cup start under his belt when his life was tragically take in a practice crash at New Hampshire in 2000. This fourth-generation driver was taken too soon, and we’ll never know what the young man could have accomplished.

Adam’s death no doubt took some of the enjoyment out of racing for Kyle. I can’t even imagine how hard a hit that must have been, and I’m surprised that he’s still driving eight years later. I can only admire the courage Kyle showed by finishing out the 2000 season in his son’s Busch series car. That had to be a heartbreaking experience getting into the car each week.

The Petty name has been around since the start of NASCAR, and will always be a part of NASCAR though Petty Enterprises, investor or not.

But it looks like this chapter of the Petty legacy, Kyle’s driving career, is coming to an end. No, he didn’t end up a legend like his father and grandfather, but his name will be remembered with nothing but positivity, and he will likely serve as a great ambassador for the sport for years to come.

Pocono picks
The Pocono race should be sponsored by Tivo, as that’s what most people use to watch the overly long race. Dover races used to be 500 miles, too, until NASCAR stopped that 10 years ago. Simply put, the speeds at Pocono are too slow to justify 500 miles.

The race will likely be a competition between Gibbs teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, with perhaps a dash of Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sprinkled in, and Hamlin coming out as victor at his best track. Look for many of the people who did well last week at Indy to be strong, including A.J. Allmendinger. If you’re brave enough to watch this thing live, I recommend regular leg-stretching breaks to avoid a sore butt. It’s a marathon.


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