Hell Be 44 No More

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Kyle Petty isn’t into any of that "end of an era" stuff. He prefers instead to look ahead to what the future holds for Petty Enterprises.

But the fact still remains that, providing he qualifies for the race, Saturday’s Winston Cup event at Bristol will be the last time Petty will ever get behind the wheel of the No. 44 Hot Wheels Pontiac, a car he has driven since returning to Petty Enterprises in 1997.

Following Saturday’s event, Petty will step out of that ride to take over the driving duties of the No. 45 Sprint Chevrolet in the Busch Series, the ride formerly manned by his late son Adam, for the remainder of the 2000 campaign.

That team will then make the move, as previously planned with Adam, to Winston Cup for the 2001 season, with Kyle as the pilot.

"We need to start getting a jump on next season and we figured this was the best way to go about it," Petty said. "We’re not in the hunt for a championship, so this makes a lot of sense for the Sprint team and for Petty Enterprises. We’re continuing to build for the future, and this team was supposed to be and will be a big part of the future at Petty Enterprises.

"To be honest with you, it’s a tough thing to do, getting out of the 44 car. We started that team four years ago with a lot of hopes and expectations, and we weren’t able to fulfill those or accomplish what we wanted to accomplish. It’s going to be a tough time emotionally for me, and I’m sure the team when Bristol rolls around, but we’ve got to move on to do what’s best for Petty Enterprises."

Steve Grissom, the full-time driver of Petty Enterprises’ No. 43 Dodge truck in the Craftsman Truck Series, will assume the driving duties of the Hot Wheels Pontiac for the remainder of this season, beginning with the Sept. 3 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Although it hasn’t been officially announced, Grissom is the leading candidate to take over that ride next season as the team looks for primary sponsorship. Hot Wheels officials have announced the company will not return as the major sponsor of the No. 44 car for next season, but will remain with Petty Enterprises as an associate sponsor. The Nos. 44 and 45 teams, along with John Andretti’s No. 43 team, will make the switch to Dodge next year in Chrylser’s long-awaited return to Winston Cup.

Indeed, it has not been the best of times this season for Petty in the Winston Cup Series. He’s currently 38th in the point standings with only one top-10 finish – a ninth place run at Talladega in mid-April. In fact, he hasn’t even come close to another top-10 finish. His second-best run is a 19th-place finish in the Save Mart/Kragen 350 at Sears Point in June. He’s failed to qualify for a couple of races, including last Sunday’s Pepsi 400 at Michigan.

In three previous seasons in the Hot Wheels Pontiac, he managed only two top-five finishes (both in 1997). His best finish in the point standings was 15th, also coming in his first season back at Petty Enterprises in 1997.

On the other hand, Petty has made a big splash since returning to the Busch Series. After Adam was killed in an accident at New Hampshire in May, Kyle announced he would take over the driving duties of the Sprint Chevrolet for selected races, then announced later plans to drive the car full-time.

So far this summer, he has made six starts in the Sprint Chevy, and has recorded five top-15 finishes. The only time he’s finished outside the top-15 was his first race – at Dover Downs – in early June. Petty has had top-10 runs at Milwaukee (8th), Nazareth (5th) and Madison, Ill. (9th).

"The team got together and Sprint agreed upon it that they wanted me to drive the car, and I truly feel that Adam would have wanted it that way," Petty said. "It’s my way to pay tribute to Adam, and hopefully we’ve been able to run well enough for Adam to be proud of this team.

"It’s not easy to get into the car because it was Adam’s, and he was going to do great things in this car. It’s going to take a lot of time to heal, and eventually it’ll get better. But right now we’re going out there and trying not only to run well in Adam’s memory, but also to prepare for next year when we move up to Winston Cup."

Adam Petty made his first and only Winston Cup start in the Sprint Chevy in early April at Texas, and wound up finishing 40th when his engine gave out after 215 of 300 laps. Ironically, that was one of the races Kyle Petty failed to make it into the field.

This weekend, Kyle will participate in both the Winston Cup race and the Busch event at Bristol. He’ll then turn his attention full-time to the Busch Series and the No. 45 Sprint Chevy.

"There’s no looking back now, we’ve got to look ahead," Petty said. "And what’s ahead for us, our future, is the 45 car. Adam was to be the future of Petty Enterprises, and it’s never going to be the same without him. Now we’re just trying to carry out those plans and go forward. This is just the first step."

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