SONOMA, Calif. — It took eight winless seasons for Richard Petty to realize he was no longer NASCAR’s best driver.
He spent the last decade once again ignoring the obvious, refusing to accept that his race team wasn’t any good. No matter how bad things got at Petty Enterprises, The King always believed he had another trip to Victory Lane in his near future.
“I’m a hard-head. That’s the reason I keep coming back,” he said. “I drove and I won in ’84, and then didn’t win anymore. It finally dawned on me ‘You’re not good enough doing your job to win anymore races, so you’d better get out.’”
He did, after the 1992 season, transitioning into management at Petty Enterprises. There were three wins in the first nine seasons, but none since John Andretti drove the famed No. 43 to an April 1999 victory at Martinsville Speedway.
In the long, lean decade that followed that last win, Petty refused to believe it was his last victory celebration.
“I’m a very optimistic person,” he said. “Just because we didn’t do it yesterday doesn’t mean we can’t do it today.”
Petty did on Sunday, when Kasey Kahne took him to Victory Lane for the first time in 364 races by winning on the road course at Infineon Raceway.
It was a breakthrough victory for Richard Petty Motorsports, the team born in January from the merger between Gillett-Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises. The four-car organization is a whole lot more Gillett than Petty, but The King is still the star of the show.
Clad in his cowboy hat and dark sunglasses, the fans surrounding Victory Lane cheered him as if Elvis himself had just crashed the party. Petty sipped some celebratory red wine and soaked up the moment he always believed was right around the corner.
“If we hadn’t have won the race (Sunday), we would have went to New Hampshire, and in my mind, we would have won New Hampshire,” he said.
Only the reality is, unless Kahne gets on some sort of hot streak, it may be some time before Petty gets another win.
Kahne’s win proved that the No. 9 team is still a legitimate contender, he’s still a great race car driver and RPM’s employees are still working double-time to produce a competitive product.
But there’s still a ton of larger issues looming over RPM, and Sunday’s win was nothing more than a temporary distraction from the problems.
• The team has been funding AJ Allmendinger’s ride largely out of pocket all season, and RPM has never promised to run that fourth car beyond the 26th race of the season. Allmendinger forfeited a large chunk of his race winnings this season to keep his seat, and sponsorship is desperately needed for RPM to maintain its four cars.
• Simmering issues with manufacturer Dodge reached a boiling point when parent company Chrysler entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and Petty has said the checks are no longer in the mail. Both sides are believed to be trying to find an amicable split that would allow RPM to move to another manufacturer before the end of the year. The anticipation of Dodge not meeting its financial commitment led RPM to lay off nine employees earlier this month and slash salaries across the board.
• Because the relationship with Dodge is so shaky, there’s no real incentive for RPM to spend any money developing the new engine that Kahne insists he needs to be competitive. He pushed for a new motor, and got one for two of the last four races. But RPM doesn’t have enough motors in production for Kahne to get one full-time, or for the other three drivers to get one at all.
• Cash appears to be an issue as garage insiders have openly wondered whether majority owner George Gillett Jr. can meet several upcoming due dates on rather large payments, including a deposit for engines from a new manufacturer presumed to be Toyota.
On Saturday, Gillett reached a deal to sell the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, but any proceeds will likely go toward his loan on English Premier League soccer team Liverpool. The team’s accountants recently warned that if Gillett and co-owner Tom Hicks can’t refinance about $563 million in debt before July 24, they’ll probably have to sell the club.
Since Gillett was the money man in the merger with Petty — remember, Petty Enterprises was on the brink of a collapse before partnering with GEM — many people are worried about the long-term health of RPM.
But Petty, a seven-time Cup winner and NASCAR’s winningest driver, has played this game before. He’s ducked and dodged every threat, and always stayed on his feet.
And he’s far too cool to let anyone see him sweat. When Kahne was asked about the instability at RPM, The King chimed in with his own assessment.
“From the financial end, we’ll definitely be there next week,” he joked. “We’ve got enough money to do that.”