By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 12, 2002
HAMPTON, Ga. -- Petty Enterprises showed signs of life Sunday as two of its three cars finished among the top 15 in the MBNA America 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
But trouble still lurks.
Owner-driver Kyle Petty addressed rumors that sponsors are growing impatient and young driver Buckshot Jones might be replaced. Jones was 12th, his best finish in 33 races in the No. 44 Dodge.
"It's no secret; we're on the hot seat," said Petty, who was 15th in the No. 45 Dodge. "The way we've run for a year, if the sponsors aren't screaming, there's a problem with that. They're not mad at us, but they want us to run better."
Petty Enterprises is in the second year of a massive reorganization that has shown positive, but subtle, results. The latest move was hiring Robin Pemberton, former crew chief for Rusty Wallace, to manage all three teams. Last season, Petty was owner, manager and driver.
"The pit crews are getting a little better, the cars are getting a little better, the motors are a little better -- it's just a combination," said seven-time Winston Cup champ Richard Petty, who retired from the No. 43 in 1992 with 200 career victories. "The reorganization is working. It's just one race and we didn't win, but we're going in the right direction."
Kyle Petty tried to argue that he should have no more job security than Jones or John Andretti, whose cars are sponsored by Georgia Pacific and General Mills, respectively. Andretti was 36th in the No. 43 after wrecking late in Sunday's race.
"The only reason they're not talking about me is because I own the place," Kyle Petty said. "You should be talking about me. How can I stand here and criticize Buckshot when I missed 12 races last year and he missed two?"
Well, because it was six.
And, to make matters worse, Jones failed to qualify for the 2002 Daytona 500, NASCAR's premiere event. And, to be realistic, Kyle Petty is more marketable from the sideline than half the drivers in the top 25.
Kyle Petty has given no indication he is ready to quit driving. He believes his experience as a driver is too valuable to the decisions he must make as an owner. But with proven veterans such as Joe Nemechek and Kenny Wallace without solid Winston Cup rides, Jones seems vulnerable. Wallace is out of the No. 1 Chevrolet with Steve Park's return at Darlington, and Nemechek's Haas-Carter team has yet to find a primary sponsor to replace Kmart.
JUNIOR WARY: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s second-place finish was his first top five since October. Considered a championship contender, his season has gotten off to a typically slow start.
"We're not where we need to be in points," said Earnhardt, who made the day's biggest climb, 11 spots, to 14th. "As far as the race team and how we do our job, we're happy with that and feel like it's championship material. But we just can't seem to get off the trailer fast. We need to work on our setups for these flat tracks."
The series heads this weekend to the tricky egg-shaped oval, which chews up tires and challenges a driver's patience. Earnhardt doesn't like it one bit.
"It's tough to go in there with a positive attitude," he said. "It's a struggle to keep the car on the racetrack. It's so easy to get fed up and give up on the racecar there, and that happens quite often with me."
MOTORING: The one-engine rule faced its first 500-mile test and there were fewer failures Sunday than in the same event last year: five vs. nine.
"Traditionally, this race is hard on engines," said Doug Yates, who builds motors for his father's teams at Robert Yates Racing, as well as several others in the series.
"I'd like to see NASCAR keep it the way it is. We've made the rule, let's stick with it and ride it out a little bit. Atlanta is hard, but the true test is going to be places like Pocono, where you have to start shifting."