Petty's fortunes as an owner in a down shift

DOVER, Del. - Richard Petty, still fit at 72, maneuvered his lanky frame up 13 steps on two ladders to the top of his No. 43 hauler for a bird's-eye view of Dover International Speedway.

Wearing his signature cowboy hat, jeans and alligator boots, Petty closely watched from behind dark sunglasses as Kasey Kahne took some practice laps last week in preparation for the second race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Kahne would finish eighth and remained 12th - and last - in the Chase. But that's not the point. The fact that Kahne has won two races this season and qualified for the Chase for Richard Petty Motorsports has far greater significance for the world of NASCAR.

It means The King is back.

The man who won a record 200 races and seven championships as a driver had fallen into the abyss of NASCAR as his family-owned Petty Enterprises struggled for more than a decade.

As the mega powers of Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing competed in an arms race of cutting-edge technology and boasted marquee drivers, Petty's mom-and-pop, family-owned Petty Enterprises, formed in 1949, became a non-factor.

And it hurt.

"It's been tough from the standpoint you always felt you should do better, you could do better," Petty said. "We kept rolling with the punches. ... It was OK, when everybody else was our size. Then all of a sudden, we just stayed the same, and the world changed around us.

"Ours was a family deal, and as long as we made a good living out of it and could keep trucking along, that's what we looked at. I look at the way the good Lord has things set up, and it's not good for any one person all the time. You have to take the lumps.

"He had given me such good luck, and it was time to even it out."

Now, in its first season partnered with sports entrepreneur George Gillett Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports has four cars in the top 30, led by Kahne.

Though Petty's role is said to be more ceremonial than financial-based, Gillett was emphatic about how important Petty is to the organization.

"This man will always be the leader," Gillett said. "His reputation, his energy, his passion, his interest, that is the culture of our organization."

Petty Enterprises merged with Gillett-Evernham Motorsports in February, taking on the new name, Richard Petty Motorsports. The new team would have four drivers - Kahne and Elliott Sadler from Gillett-Evernham and Reed Sorensen and A.J. Allmendinger from Petty Enterprises.

Richard Petty's son, Kyle, who had raced for him since 1979, was out of a job. So were about 100 other longtime employees of Petty Enterprises.

"We always kept it a family deal," Richard Petty said. "Once these guys sitting in Boston and Chicago put numbers to numbers, they said this ain't working. We downsized a little bit initially, and it didn't leave room for Kyle. That was a big disappointment.

"But our biggest disappointment was closing down Petty Enterprises from the standpoint, all the people who worked for us all those years. We had people work for us 30, 40 years, never had another job, they came out of school and go to work for us.

"That was harder to take than losing Kyle, because Kyle has the talent to do something else. But some of these other boys didn't know anything but working on a Petty car."

One of Richard Pettty Motorsports' first actions was to hire Robbie Loomis as vice-president/director of competition. Loomis was a Petty Enterprises crew chief for 11 years before leaving in 2000 for Hendrick Motorsports as Jeff Gordon's crew chief.

When Loomis returned, he saw how far his old boss had fallen.

"For Richard being a successful driver, he always paid attention to what mattered most, and that was getting the performance out of the car on the weekends," Loomis said. "When he got out of the car and became the owner and had to make a lot of decisions, the business decisions outgrew us at a faster pace.

"When we teamed with Gillett over the winter, we saw a big commitment from them to get the team back to winning. "

And when Kahne broke through and won at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Cal., it was the first Petty car to win a Sprint Cup race since 1999. Kahne then won again in Atlanta and clinched Petty's first spot in the Chase with a 12th-place finish at Richmond in the final race before the Chase.

"Seeing the smile on Richard Petty's face in the winner's circle at those two races ... there's nothing that makes you happier," Gillett said