FONTANA, Calif. A top-15 finish by either Petty Enterprises Dodge in today's NASCAR race at California Speedway would be a big boost for the team.
My, how times have changed.
The Petty team, founded by NASCAR pioneer and three-time champ Lee Petty and carried on under the stewardship of his son, stock car king and seven-time champion Richard, and Richard's son, Kyle, has fallen on hard times.
The team has accumulated 268 victories, but none since 1999 and only three since the last of Richard's wins for the family team in 1983. Two of his record 200 wins came in 1984 while driving for Mike Curb.
When Jeff Green qualified third for today's Auto Club 500, it marked the best starting position for a Petty entry since John Andretti was second at Phoenix in the fall of 2002.
Kyle Petty, his teammate and boss, will start 28th in a 43-car field.
Kyle, who also has the day-to-day responsibility of running the team, has finished better than 18th only once this season -- 12th at Las Vegas -- and Green's best performances in the No. 43 car that Richard made famous have been a pair of 19th-place finishes.
But Richard, who remains an involved team owner, is hopeful that the once-proud Petty Enterprises has turned the corner back toward respectability and beyond.
"It's definitely improved from last year," he said Saturday. "Some of our finishes might not have been any better than last year, but the cars are definitely making the fields a little bit better, running a little bit better as the race goes on. The combination is just not going to come together all at one time. You just keep plugging away."
The elder Petty, still the most recognized figure in the stock car sport with his trademark cowboy hat, boots and dark glasses, has some sympathy for his son, whose life has been touched with tragedy and distractions in recent years.
Kyle and wife Pattie are about to fulfill a dream, opening the Victory Junction Gang Camp for chronically and terminally ill children near their home in Randleman, N.C. The camp, which will open officially on June 20, is a tribute to the memory their son Adam, who died in crash in 2000.
Even before Adam's death, Kyle was active in raising money for children's hospitals. His 10th-annual charity ride across America began Saturday in Palm Desert, Calif., and Petty will join it tonight in Flagstaff, Ariz. The ride will end at the new camp on May 8.
"Kyle is the strawboss of the team from the standpoint of making sure these guys have cars and people and all that stuff," Richard said. "He has a lot on his shoulders."
All the outside responsibilities haven't made it any easier.
"The camp deal has been really, really on his mind," Richard said. "As it gets closer and closer, then he gets more wound up about what's going on. And this particular week, he's getting ready for the charity ride. I don't know how he has time to even think about getting in the car."
Kyle shrugs off that talk, calling his race car a "refuge." He also thinks the team has begun to move in a positive direction.
"We wasted a year, all of 2003, and maybe parts of 2002, because we lost focus and direction," Kyle said. "The last part of 2003, we got back on track so we could start this year somewhere close to where we needed to be."
Both Pettys remain realists, though.
"When you haven't been finishing too well, if you finish in the top 10 or 15 then you've accomplished something," Richard said.