Pettys Only Hope

John Andretti has had enough troubles of his own during the early portion of the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season.

But even after a sixth-place finish in Sunday’s Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway, one he and his Cheerios team sorely needed, Andretti couldn’t help but feel sorry for the exploits of Jeff Burton.

What’s that, one driver feeling sorry for another’s on-track problems? That’s when you know things are tough.

Burton finished 18th Sunday at a track where he normally dominates. The driver of the No. 99 Citgo Taurus has had an awful season to date and sits 35th in the Winston Cup points standings.

"A lot of teams need some good runs now, and it’s amazing how many good teams are running in the back right now," said Andretti, whose previous best finish was 14th at Atlanta two weeks ago. "We were really fortunate to finish where we did (Sunday) when you look at my buddy Jeff Burton. He can’t catch a break.

"He could have easily been a top-10 car (Sunday) or maybe even a top-five car. He maybe could have challenged for the win, but he got penalized for a tire rolling across pit road. It’s just been one of those kind of years for him."

Until Sunday, it had been that for Andretti. He got caught up in the "big wreck" and finished 39th at Daytona, then improved to 21st at Rockingham before slipping back to 37th at Las Vegas.

The top-15 run at Atlanta was a brief respite before a somewhat impressive performance at Darlington.

"That’s the first race John’s run all year and hadn’t had something happen to the car or somebody knock him into the wall," said Richard Petty, the owner of Andretti’s No. 43 Dodge. "He ran pretty well at Rockingham and he ran pretty well at Vegas, good enough to be in the Top 10, and got knocked into the wall both times. This is the first time he’s run the whole race and everything sort of went halfway our way."

"I feel real good about our finish (at Darlington)," Andretti said. "It’s been a long road to get here. I think a lot of people had trouble in the first four races. This place (Darlington Raceway) scares me to death, and I hit every wall here. I know what it’s like to crash here. I think everybody does, and that’s what makes Darlington so tough. We’re fortunate to come out of here with a Top 10 like we did."

Andretti hasn’t seen many of those recently. Last year he only two top-10 finishes on his way to finishing 23rd in the Winston Cup points standings. He hasn’t been to victory lane since Martinsville in the spring of 1999 and hasn’t won a pole since Phoenix in late 1999.

It appears, however, he’s the best of the three Petty Enterprises cars so far this season. Kyle Petty has already missed two of the five races this season and is 43rd in the points, while Buckshot Jones, in his first season with the Pettys, is 40th in the points and has three DNFs, including Sunday’s 41st-place finish.

"We’ve just got to keep working on our other two cars," Richard Petty said. "We know we can do it because we’re doing it with one (Andretti’s). Somebody has got to set a standard, so now it’s set for the other two to catch up with that one. Then we’ll be in pretty good shape."

Things won’t get much easier for Andretti and the rest of the Petty Enterprises teams this weekend. The Winston Cup circuit heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for the first short track event of the season, Sunday’s Food City 500.

Andretti has one top-five finish during his career at Bristol, a fourth-place run in the Food City 500 in 1999.

Petty Enterprises teams tested at Bristol recently, the first time that has happened since Andretti came back to PE in 1998.

"When we tested, we ran quicker than Petty Enterprises had ever run there," Andretti said. "I feel like if I don’t mess up too badly, we might even make the front straightaway (pit stall). That would be a miracle. For sure, I start on the back straightaway more than the front.

"I want to qualify up front and run up front in the race. We had a good test here and I think all three Petty Enterprises Dodges will do well. If we can get up front early, it will make the day that much easier. I am just looking forward to getting the car up front and keeping all the sheet metal on the car. If we can do that, then we will have a good weekend."

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