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Kyle Petty refocused, revitalized

After a year of distractions and disappointments, he is running in the top 20.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 8, 2002

After a year of distractions and disappointments, he is running in the top 20.

He is a son with a famous father. A father with a grieving soul. A humanitarian with a ponytail and a motorcycle. A businessman with a vision.

Yet, for all the identities Kyle Petty has assumed the past 20 years, the 2002 Winston Cup season has managed to reintroduce a 42-year-old man already so familiar he feels like kin.

Petty is a driver.

A good one, at that.

After a dismal 2001, Petty is consistently running among the top 20 in the No. 45 Dodge. Though the rebuilding of Petty Enterprises was designed for someone else, Petty is executing the plan not only from behind the CEO's desk, but behind the wheel.

"It's good because he's struggled; the family's struggled," said Richard Petty, Kyle's father and NASCAR's "King" with 200 victories. "I think he could have a real good fan base if he could do a little bit better. A lot of people probably pull for him under their breath, but when he passes people they can jump up and pull for him."

Looking back, Kyle Petty realizes he was not prepared emotionally to drive the 2001 season that would have been his oldest son's rookie year in the No. 45. Adam Petty, 19, was killed in a crash in Busch Grand National practice in May 2000 at New Hampshire International Speedway.

Determined to travel the course set for his son, Petty's best finish came in the first race: 16th at the Daytona 500. He failed to qualify for 12 events. He failed to finish eight more. He was 43rd in points, the lowest rank of his 23-year career.

"I think I let all these guys down last year," Petty said of his employees and teammates. "I probably wasn't there mentally 100 percent of the time. There were weeks I was, and weeks I wasn't. I feel like I am now."

Six months after critics suggested he reduce his driving duties to his annual motorcycle charity ride, Petty is resurgent. With a goal to consistently run 15th to 25th this season, Petty is hitting the mark more often than not as the strongest of Petty Enterprises' three teams.

After a slow start, Petty has nine top-20 finishes in the past 10 races, moving up 18 places to 20th in the standings. He finished 10th at Talladega, his first top 10 in nearly two years.

"Kyle has rebuilt his whole race team," said John Andretti, in his fifth season driving the team's flagship No. 43. "There's not a person in the stands who wouldn't leave with a smile on their face if Kyle Petty won an event."

An eight-time winner, he finished a career-best fifth in the standings in 1992 and '93 driving for Felix Sabates. But there seemed always to be a reason to question Petty's commitment to racing, even in his prime. Something else usually challenged for his attention, be it a career in country music, a weekend at the beach with his family or one of his many charity programs.

Now, his focus is clear.

"I'm proving to myself that if Adam were still here and driving this race car, that he could run competitively and he could win races," said Petty, whose last victory was in 1995. "That's the part that bothered me the most about last year with the 45 not making races. I looked at it and said, 'This is me not making races, but this would be bad for Adam if he were here.'

"That's a lot of what drives the decisionmaking process here at Petty Enterprises. When we look at making a change, the criteria we use here a lot is: 'Would this be better for Adam?' If the answer is, 'Yes,' then we change."

Plenty of changes took place last year.

Looking to return Petty Enterprises to its glory days, Petty grabbed the downtrodden organization by the lapels and shook. He switched from Pontiac to Dodge. He dropped the engine-building program and signed on with Mike Ege, formerly of Robert Yates Racing. He enlisted an aerodynamics company. He hired, fired, shifted and shaped.

"It's like being a farmer," Petty said. "You have to plant the seed and wait for the seed to grow. We planted a lot of stuff last year, and we're beginning to reap some of the benefits."

A most beneficial offseason move was hiring Robin Pemberton, former crew chief for Rusty Wallace, to serve as team manager for all three teams. Suddenly, Petty had time to sleep.

And drive.

"He's a lot freer," Richard Petty said. "No matter how smart people are, they can only do so much. He was asking his body and his mind to do two or three jobs. Now, he's still doing a couple of jobs, but he's got more time for the racing side of it. He's got the ability. Now, he's having fun and really enjoying it."

A side of Petty nearly forgotten.

"It always feels good to pass somebody and not get passed," Petty said. "I've passed some cars this year. I haven't passed all of them, but I've passed a few."

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