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Richard Petty! The King is winning again

Richard Petty toasting Kasey Kahne on Sonoma victory (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   SONOMA, Calif.
   Richard Petty for years wouldn't run cars with alcohol sponsorships, so winning in a Bud-backed car is something unusual for him.
   And then in victory lane he celebrated Kasey Kahne's Sonoma 350 victory with a glass of wine.
    "That's the reason I like to come to Napa Valley," Petty was saying Sunday evening, with that big grin of his.
   "I got in a (winery) cave the other night -- they had wine down one side in big barrels, and then they had wine down the other side. As we walked in I think we drunk something out of every barrel.
     "That was a long deal.
      "It was straight…and when we got to the other end, and when I turned around, that dad gum cave was like that and like that. It changed after I went up through it. It was straight going in, it wasn't too straight coming out."
    And he laughed.
   It's been a while since Petty was in this good a mood.
   Here's hoping he can keep it up, because last winter was a rough one, the last few years in fact.
   With venerable Petty Enterprises on the sponsorship ropes, Petty wrangled and finessed things until finally he pulled off a business deal with sportsman George Gillett to keep a place in this sport.
   And now this….

   After his many, many wins, and the wins at Petty Enterprises going back to the 1950s, Petty himself says this is a new era and a new day: "I guess this is win number one.
    " Really, I'm involved…but I am not as involved as I was when we used to have the place at Level Cross.
     "And then when we moved to Mooresville last year it kind of got away from me. 
    "Now we've moved over to Statesville, and it's a little bit different territory, because they already had everything -- the system -- in place."

    This team, this company, has gone through several mutations and permutations over the years. First as Bill Elliott's team. Then as Evernham's new Dodge operation, with Elliott. Then without Elliott. Then with Gillett coming in. Then with Evernham vanishing. Then with Petty himself arriving on the scene in December, closing down Petty Enterprises and merging with Gillett under the Dodge banner…and with Gillett angling hard for a Toyota deal, though he hasn't gotten one yet.
    Speculation has been that if Dodge officials don't get their act together, Petty and Gillett will simply change decals…and maybe pretty quickly.
    If Dodge has changed its game plans for Petty, it's unclear.
    What next for the company now known as Richard Petty Motorsports?
   Well, that may be up to Dodge…and Roger Penske.
   Evernham created a major Dodge engine operation during his stint, but as things wound down on that side of the game, the engine operation apparently began floundering. As late as three weeks ago Petty had only enough parts to build one of the new Dodge engines.
    Speculation lately has been that Kahne is Petty's top dog, that the other drivers still on the roster – Elliott Sadler, AJ Allmendinger and Reed Sorenson – have futures that are still up in the air….not to mention sponsorship issues. Kahne, with Bud, appears to have the only solid sponsorship in place, and with InBev buying Anheuser-Busch there have been questions about whether Bud will be back next season.
   With all that turmoil…. "We've tried not to let that distract us. It's been difficult, really, to be honest with you, to not let that distract us," crew chief Kenny Francis says.
    And for a few precious minutes Sunday afternoon, all those worries were in the closet, and it was the game itself afoot.

    Surprise was in the air before the race, and it struck hard once the Sonoma 350 got underway Sunday, with various teams looking for unusual strategies.
    The first goal of a team at Bruton Smith's road course is to figure out how to make the 110 laps – 220 miles – on just two pit stops. If that's not an option, then an early stop to create a new fuel window is the next option.
    So Sunday's race quickly turned into battling strategies, which naturally made things more than a little confusing. And, with drivers trying to stretch fuel, rather than racing hard, it was difficult to figure out just who was on what timetable.
    Kenny Francis, Kahne's crew chief, said this wasn't an easy race to book up for: "There was a lot going on…With this new tire Goodyear brought, it was a lot different complexion of racing than in the past, and you had to decide what to do with your tires -- and whether to come get new tires or stay out there a couple times during the middle of the race (to protect track position).
   "The fuel strategy is always an issue here -- can you pit early and make it all the way, or do you risk the cautions, or do you come in when you get your 'window.'
    "But we played it: There was a stretch in the middle of the race where we were in the about the middle of the pack and the fuel thing hadn't cycled out yet, so we elected to come get tires.
    "I think that was probably the key move for us. We drove up through the field on the new tires, and got up near the front -- then when the pit stop stuff cycled out, we were right there in the front.
    "We didn't know what was going to happen. We were sitting on the box and had no idea how it was going to work out.
    "We said 'we'll try to stick to our plans, hit our window, and hopefully it works out.'
     "And it did, luckily."

    Kahne surprised everyone Sunday, even himself, certainly runner-up Tony Stewart, and most assuredly Petty, who wound in victory lane for the first time in 10 years….and on a road course to boot.
   With so many issues and questions swirling around the Petty-Gillett camp at the moment, Kahne provided a perfect moment to start things turning around.
    "I've had issues here finishing anywhere…so to qualify good the last three years here, and then race really strong, it was the first time that I've been able to pull that off," Kahne said.
   Give some credit to Kahne's own cool, of course, with Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and Jimmie Johnson all on his tail.
   And give some credit to Francis, who, with Kahne, goes back to the Evernham era with this team.

    "My biggest thing," Kahne said of the stretch, "was 'don't spin the tires,' and work on getting into turn one and just being beside Tony at the top of the hill, and hopefully hold him off there.
    "A few times we were able to jump the start and beat him into one, no problem.
    "That new restart deal is tough. For the last three weeks I've been I think every weekend I've had some good ones and some bad ones.
    "It worked out really good for us, and we were able to hold him off."
    Not just once or twice, but four times: "I was like, 'I can't believe this.'" Kahne conceded.
    "The key spots – there are a couple spots where you can pass: seven and 11, if you've got a quicker car.
    "I was really good leading up to those spots. Tony was a little better in 11, but I was good all the way to 11, so he wasn't close enough."

    Certainly this whole operation has made for good copy this season. "When we joined with the Gillett crowd, we knew they had a good team," Petty said. "So we just brought in three or four people and tried to look at things different.
    "But there's not a whole lot of changes. We've got the same cars and the same crews.
     "It was a winning organization, and I happened to get involved in it…and hopefully we can make it a little bit better from time to time.
     "It was one of those days -- Everything fell together, okay? The car was good, the crew was good, they made really good strategy on making their pit stops, the whole deal.
    "It was one of those picture perfect days."
    Francis said he had to play it cool himself: "I was trying to keep myself calm…because I didn't want to get excited and get him excited and get him to make a mistake.
    "We were leading Darlington about six races ago, and I noticed myself getting excited, and thought 'Man, I've won a lot of these races, I shouldn't be acting this way.'
    "So here I was really making a conscious effort to remain calm, and keep him calm and focused.
     "Since Darlington, we're a top-five car, we just haven't had the result. But we've been there every week.
     "We're really trying hard, and we think we're making some headway. I felt really good about how consistent our cars have run the past month and a half. Somewhere in March we weren't running like we wanted to run; and we certainly changed some stuff around, and it's picked us up.
    "Sometimes you don't see it, but here it finally paid off.”

   So Richard Petty is finally winning again, albeit no longer with Petty Enterprises, which is all but defunct now that Petty has merged with George Gillett.
    Good moment for some Petty trivia:
    Remember number 200, at Daytona back in the summer of '84, with the car now in the Smithsonian?
    What marque? 
    Who did Petty beat to win the race, in front of President Reagan?
    Who finished second?
    Who was the crew chief?
    Who built the engine?
    Who owned the team?
    How much was the winner's share?

    Pontiac. Cale Yarborough. Harry Gant. Buddy Parrott. Robert Yates. Mike Curb. $43,000.

Marcos Ambrose: Hey, he's the real thing! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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