Petty Enterprises Hits Bottom

The glory days for Petty Enterprises are long gone. They’re so far away that it’s hard to remember Richard Petty won 10 races in a row one year.

Last year was especially tough, even if you don’t consider the family lost its future when Adam Petty was killed at New Hampshire. Kyle Petty had one top-10 finish in the 19 races he ran, and John Andretti finished 23rd in the points standings with only two top10s.

The Pettys could use the switch to Dodge as an excuse, as the team prepared the new Intrepid for its initial run in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Much of the development of the new car was concocted by Petty Enterprises and Ray Evernham.

But the Pettys haven’t seen any fruits of their labor. In an already dreadful season, they hit bottom last week at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. If not for a bonsai lap by Buckshot Jones, the Petty teams would’ve all gone home.

As it so happens, Petty and Andretti did load up after qualifying and Jones faded from a 13th starting position to finish 27th.

“We thought we were getting better, but right now we’re not better,” Richard Petty said. “Two of our three cars didn’t make the (Coca-Cola) 600, and that’s pretty bad. John usually makes up the difference enough to get in, but they weren’t good last week (for The Winston) and they went back home and did a bunch of work and they weren’t any better.”

Andretti’s troubles are a mystery. He’s been back with the team for three years, and despite a victory at Martinsville in 1999, Andretti has finished lower in the points every year since he started. He was 11th in 1998, 17th in 1999 and 23rd last year. Through 12 races of 2001, Andretti is 32nd.

As mind-boggling as it is, Andretti was 16th in points after finishing second at Bristol on March 25. Since then, it’s all been downhill: 31st, 35th, 37th, 26th, 34th, DNQ.

Not a pretty sight.

Andretti’s troubles are just symptomatic of Petty Enterprises troubles. Kyle has failed to qualify for five races, hasn’t finished on the lead lap yet and has finished 35th or worse in the seven races he did make. Jones has missed two races, finished on the lead lap once (Talladega, where he was 16th) and has finished 29th or worse seven times.

“We cut it and dissect it and look at it, and we’re a little off in a lot of different places,” Richard Petty said. “We’re a little off on the motor, a little off on the chassis, a little off on the body. Add all that up, and you’re a half-second slow and you don’t make the race.

“We can’t pinpoint any one thing. You’ve already done everything you think you’re supposed to do. Now you’ve just got to go back and start over. You work on the body and cut ‘em up. You work on the chassis, and the motor guys are always working. We just ain’t got a good combination.

“It’s not the motor people’s fault. It’s not the chassis people’s fault. It’s not the driver’s or the crew’s fault. It’s a combination. All of us are not doing what’s right, and what it is we’re not doing right, I don’t know. We’re frustrated with it right now. Four or five weeks ago, we thought we had a handle on it. We were down, and we kept getting better and better, not that much, but enough we could see it.”

Then came Richmond. Andretti needed a provisional to start, then got in a crash and finished 34th. Kyle Petty qualified 16th, but ended up two laps down in 22nd. And Jones failed to qualify for the second straight race.

“We came to Charlotte for the Winston Open, and Buckshot got in two different scraps and neither one of them was his fault,” Richard Petty said. “John and Kyle didn’t run good, either. We just ain’t there. It’s not that we ain’t spending the money or doing the testing. We’re doing all the right things except coming up with the right answers. We keep changing stuff, but we ain’t changing the right stuff yet.”

Jones bounced back nicely from his two straight DNQs. The addition of Chris Rice as spotter seems to have helped.

“He knows what style I like to drive, and he’s always trying to find a groove that fits my style of driving at all these tracks,” Jones said. “He has been a big benefit to this team… Getting Chris to come over and help me to spot has really helped in qualifying. Last week at Charlotte he told me some things to adjust on my qualifying lap, and it really helped out. We turned in one of our best efforts of the season and it really felt good and got everyone pumped up.

"Chris is also our shock specialist, and that has helped out this team, too. I can relay information over to him and he can then go back and tell (crew chief) Bryant (Frazier) what I’m looking for. The more people I have to get and give information to helps out.”

That might work for Jones, but it seems to have hampered the rest of Petty Enterprises. Before, when Richard Petty was winning his 200 races and seven championships, he had a small group of people – like crew chief Dale Inman and engine builder Maurice Petty – around him.

In this era of multicar teams and multimillion-dollar sponsorships, that doesn’t work anymore. And Petty Enterprises has gotten disorganized.

“Now, you’ve got core people working on the race cars, but you’ve got so many people working on pieces bringing it in and ordering and all this stuff in order for the core people to have the stuff to work with,” Richard said. “It’s got away from us, and we’re just trying to get organized. We figured we haven’t been that good the last eight or 10 years. We cleaned out the shop and started with new stuff and a new organization. We grew into a big organization without the inner workings growing. Some of our programs or directions need to be changed. We’ll keep changing until we get it right.

“Every once in awhile you think you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Then you don’t make the race, and you don’t think you’re getting there. We can’t divert too far from our program, because if the first-year (Dodge) program doesn’t go, the second and third-year deals won’t go, either. We’re just one-third of the way through the season. I guess we’ve got 24 points races left, so we can’t afford to change direction too much in midstream because really, we’re not in midstream just yet.”

Richard Petty no longer runs the team, leaving Kyle with CEO responsibilities. But Kyle had had a lot on his mind the last year, and he hasn’t been able to be the leader he wants to be.

“Kyle has so much on his plate,” Richard said. “We’re starting a new team, new deal with Dodge. He’s trying to organize it like we think it needs to be organized for that big of an operation. Then the Adam deal is always the shadow deal. He’s got mixed emotions, and he’s trying to drive the car and keep all the other drivers happy and keep the sponsors happy.

“Every time you see him he’s on a different deal, but it’s all pertaining to what we’ve got to get done. You talk to him one time, and he’s just got through talking to the motor shop. The next time I see him, he’s talking about wind tunnel results or new transmissions or something. He’s trying to keep up with too much, but he feels like that’s what he needs to do. To me, that helps him with the Adam deal. He keeps himself as busy as he can even though he’s not getting done what he wants done. He’ll keep working and it’ll come. Nothing comes easy.”

Even getting back to respectability certainly won’t be for Petty Enterprises. But the organization has done some restructuring to take steps to head in that direction.

It was announced Wednesday that Chris Hussey, who serves as crew chief for the No. 45 Sprint Dodge, will now also be race operations manager for Petty Enterprises, facilitating communications among the three Winston Cup teams, the engine and research and development departments. Doug Hewitt, head of mechanical research and development, will have his role increased.

"We are maintaining our system in terms of identical cars and in how we operate each week," Kyle Petty said."What we are looking to do is put more ‘racer’ into the decisions of what goes in our cars. A lot of times things look good on paper but don’t always translate into good race cars.

"We feel Chris, working closely with Doug, Greg Steadman and Bryant Frazier (crew chiefs for the #43 Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge and the #44 Georgia-Pacific Dodge), can put the ‘racing’ into our race cars. That, coupled with the engineering knowledge and expertise we have, will give us better and more consistent race cars each week.

"We’re moving forward. We’re moving ahead. We’re making whatever changes we need to make to be competitive and to run up front."

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