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Promise kept

Adam Petty would be starting his first full Winston Cup season today at Daytona, but he was killed in a crash last year. Father Kyle wouldn't let his son's dream die, too.

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Adam Petty was to drive for Petty Enterprises and be the foundation of the team's future with Dodge. Father Kyle takes that seat now.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


DAYTONA BEACH -- He walks through the garage so quickly and so purposefully that his thick, braided ponytail flops against his back.

Kyle Petty is a man in perpetual motion.

Coming. Going. No in between.

"I don't think he sleeps," teammate John Andretti said. "And if he sleeps, he's moving while he's sleeping."

Petty has kept this harried pace since May when his 19-year-old son, a promising young driver and the future of Petty Enterprises, died in New Hampshire without him.

Adam Petty would have started his first full Winston Cup season in today's Daytona 500.

His dad will drive in his place.

There is no mistaking the Dodge Intrepid the 40-year-old will steer is Adam's -- from the name on the door to the driver's seat inside to the crew working on the car.

"For me, it's a little bit more personal," said Kyle, who will start 28th. "I'll say it until I quit; as long as that (No.) 45 car is just like it is now. ... it's Adam's team. I still call it Adam's shop. It's Adam's truck. We left his name on the truck because it's his stuff. I know that may sound bizarre to some people, but it just keeps it kind of straight."

Adam had a grin as big around as the 2.5-mile track his dad will drive today. He was the first fourth-generation driver in NASCAR history and was the reason three Petty Enterprises teams switched from Pontiacs to Dodges this season.

"For us," Kyle said, "this was starting over."

He was in England when NASCAR president Mike Helton called and told him Adam died after a crash during a practice session on May 12 at New Hampshire International Speedway.

"I really want to prove to myself more than anybody else that the team we put together for Adam was going to go out and win races and had a chance at being a great team," Kyle said. "With Adam coming along, the focus had been more on running in a Chrysler. For me now, the focus for me has switched back to being more (about) driving."

And helping return Petty Enterprises to the prominence it enjoyed when Richard Petty, his father and Adam's grandfather, was driving.

Petty Enterprises has won nine championships and 271 races since 1949 when patriarch Lee Petty, who died April 5, raced.

It has just one win in the past four seasons and no championships since 1979.

"As far as the organization and Petty Enterprises, we've run our first 50 years with Lee Petty and Richard Petty at the helm," Richard said. "The next deal was Kyle. He was supposed to do his thing and Adam was going to come in and do his thing 10 years down the road.

"But that didn't work. So now Kyle is trying to take the ashes of Petty Enterprises and rekindle the fire."

It has been a slow transfer of power, but one Richard Petty saw as necessary to continue in the increasingly competitive world of NASCAR.

"Everybody does there thing in their time," Richard said. "I did my thing in my time and I ran out. All of us are capable of doing only so much. I've done used up all my capabilities basically because I was so satisfied with what was going on, I didn't keep looking.

"But I'm not saying, "Okay, Kyle, I'm out of here. You run it.' I'm there to support him and do the things he doesn't do until he takes those duties. He's doing more all the time."

The off-season has been hectic.

The Pontiacs the team used last year were replaced by Dodges. A new driver (Buckshot Jones) was added to drive the No. 44 Kyle drove the past two seasons.

"Kyle's really into it," Richard said. "The only thing that concerns me is that he's into the business part so much I don't know if he's got any time left to drive.

"If he didn't do anything but drive, that's one thing. But he's not only looking after his car, he's trying to look after all these other things, too. I sort of roll on behind, try to help him if I can."

Kyle has had little success the past seven seasons. Since 1994 he has one win and hasn't finished higher than 15th in the standings.

But that isn't the point of today, this season or however long he chooses to keep driving.

Being around his son's car is therapeutic because it conjures memories from days spent with his son at the track. Like the day Adam finished sixth in his first Busch Grand National race at Daytona in 1999.

"He's like me," Kyle said. "He came down here so much when he was young that you lose track of a time whenever Adam wasn't at Daytona because we all came together during July and during February.

"He did a phenomenal job. He finished fifth or sixth and seeing him at the gas pumps after the race is probably something I'll always remember."

Andretti is still awed by the No. 43 that Richard Petty made famous and Andretti has driven since 1998.

But as a father of three, he cannot imagine the overload of emotions Kyle will experience today.

When he walks down pit road. When he climbs through the window. When he buckles into Adam's seat and drives Adam's car.

"People ask me what my goals are for this year," Andretti said. "Well, my big goal for me is to see Kyle pull back into Victory Lane because that would be like ... it doesn't repair or fix anything, but he's done so much for this team and he's worked so hard with this team.

"That would be not only satisfaction for him, something where he could look at it and say, "My plan was right and I was able to fulfill it.' "

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