Applauding one of racing's good guys as his career nears its end
Pattie Petty once told me something about her husband, Kyle. "My husband's not one of the greats," she said, "but he's one of the great individuals."
It was a moving tribute to a man she knows better than anyone -- a man who's a husband, a father, a musician, a television commentator, a philanthropist and, for the last 30 years of his life, a Cup-series driver.
But recent developments could mean that Petty's days on the Cup circuit are almost over. Chad McCumbee will be piloting Petty's No. 45 Dodge this weekend at Pocono, which makes two straight races that Petty will have missed since he returned from his six-week hiatus as a color commentator for TNT's coverage of Sprint Cup racing. Petty Enterprises has so far been tight-lipped about the reasons for the changes, but conventional wisdom has it that they are the result of management decisions. Regardless of the reasons, Petty isn't scheduled to return to the driver's seat until next week at Watkins Glen, and it is unclear how many more starts he will make this year.
Boston Ventures, the company that earlier this season acquired controlling interest in Petty Enterprises, understandably wants results from its new investment. In racing, results mean only wins, and Petty hasn't done much of that lately. He's reached Victory Lane just eight times in over 823 races, and the last time was in 1995. He's only cracked the top 30 in one of his nine starts this season, and Petty Enterprises, the team his grandfather founded and Kyle once ran, is well outside the top 35 in owner points. The writing is on the wall. If 2008 isn't Petty's last behind the wheel of the No. 45, then 2009 would certainly have to be.
To be fair, Petty had to know this day was coming. He knew that the team's shop had to move to Charlotte from its longtime home in Level Cross, N.C., in order to be competitive. He knew that the team needed a partner. And he knew he couldn't drive forever.
I just hope that when his run ends, it ends on his terms. Petty is, without question, one of the all-time good guys in the history of sports. No other driver has given so much back to racing. He's raised tens of millions for charity -- last season, Richard Petty, who should know a thing or two about NASCAR history, told me that his son basically invented the concept of large-scale charitable donations in the sport.
Spurred by the memory of their son, Adam, who was killed at 19 while driving in a practice session at New Hampshire eight years ago, Kyle and Pattie established the Victory Junction Gang Camp on 75 rocky, wooded acres in Randleman, N.C. It's a miraculous place, providing a weekend retreat for children with chronic conditions or serious illnesses. And it is the beneficiary of a sizable chunk of NASCAR's corporate largesse.
As a Petty fan, I take solace in the fact that his unique legacy will live on -- a legacy built not on victories and championships (Petty won only eight races in 823 career starts, the fifth most of all time), but instead on values, on things like integrity and compassion and love. If it isn't as glamorous as the one left by his father -- the winningest driver in the history of Cup racing -- it nevertheless has changed the face of NASCAR all the same.
HOW TO DRIVE
Casey Mears talks about the difficulties of racing at Pocono: "Pocono can be really frustrating. It's nearly impossible to get your car perfect throughout the entire track. So you have to be able to give some of the handling in one turn, to get better handling in parts of the track where it's a little more important. You want your car to be the best in Turn 3, so that you can exit that turn well and get all the speed you can down the long frontstretch."
5: Top-10 finishes at Pocono for Denny Hamlin in five starts, including two wins in 2006
2.8: Average finish at Pocono for Hamlin
130.4: Driver rating at Pocono for Hamlin, by far the best on the Cup circuit
June 14, 1987: Tim Richmond prevails in the Miller High Life 500, giving him three straight wins at Pocono. It is the driver's first victory after being diagnosed with the HIV virus, and the penultimate win of his career. Richmond ran only seven more races that season, and died in 1989.