Part of the problem was that Petty, as one of few owner-drivers on the circuit, was wearing too many hats. So last January he brought in veteran crew chief Robin Pemberton to serve as general manager and handle many of the day-to-day details. "I don't have 10 jobs this year, I probably only have three or four," says Petty. "Like any driver, I would like to have one job: driver. But that's never going to happen for me."
Adding Pemberton, however, has paid off. Petty's 21-spot jump in the standings, to 22nd after a 25th-place finish in the Brickyard 400, is the biggest in Winston Cup this season. Petty's top 20 finishes have increased from two in 2001 to 12 already (in 21 races) this year.
With the operation's short-term prospects looking better, Petty has to turn his attention to the long haul. When Kyle took over as CEO of Petty Enterprises from his father in 1999, he said that he was going to focus primarily on building a strong team around his son Adam, who was regarded as one of the sport's most promising young drivers. However, on May 12, 2000, Adam was killed during practice for a Busch Series race in New Hampshire. Losing Adam left a void at Petty Enterprises and contributed heavily to Kyle's miserable 2001 season. "Adam was going to be our future, he was going to be who we were going to be 10 years down the road," says Kyle. "His accident pretty much shut me down, and things got away from me to some degree."
Needing a young driver to rebuild the team around, Petty hired the 30-year-old Jones, who never finished higher than 12th and was released in April. (Meanwhile, Andretti is 29th overall, with only one top 10 finish.) "We started down that road with Buckshot, and it just didn't work out," says Petty. "Long term, we need somebody young who we can build a program around, but we don't feel like that person is in the Winston Cup garage yet. We're not interested in recycling a driver. We've got to go get a new driver."
That person, sources at Petty Enterprises told SI, will be 30-year-old CART driver Christian Fittipaldi, who, in addition to racing in several Busch and perhaps ARCA events, will make an undetermined number of Winston Cup starts in 2003, thus becoming the circuit's first Brazilian-born driver. The talented, if injury-prone, nephew of former Formula One champion Emerson Fittipaldi drove F/1 cars for three years before moving to CART in 1995, finishing as high as fifth in the points in '96.
Bringing Christian Fittipaldi onto the team is not quite on a par with, say, the Yankees signing Jason Giambi, but it's a good start.