Brant James
Wednesday June 24th, 2009

Richard Petty is a man of iconic imagery. He is to NASCAR what Jerry West is to the NBA. He could be the logo, too.

There are the cowboy hats, the ostrich feathers, the belt buckles, the grinning teeth, the mustache and the sun glasses, and when no one is looking, the dip.

NASCAR's leader in victories (200) and co-leader in championships (seven) is even called "King" by his own children. Ownership had been far more humbling to Petty, though, since he retired a quarter century ago. Before Kasey Kahne's victory on Sunday at Sonoma, Calif., his last victory in a Sprint Cup race came in 1999 with John Andretti at Martinsville.

And in this one, he seemingly was the logo. Maybe not.

The past few years, alone, should have been humiliating. But if they were, Petty kept it behind his dark-tinted lenses. Long-time sponsors were looking elsewhere, and his driver lineup lost its one true threat when former series champion Bobby Labonte left through mutual agreement.

Earlier, Petty sold a majority share of one of NASCAR's bedrock family teams to an equity firm named Boston Ventures. And before this season, entrepreneur/billionaire George Gillett Jr., having bought a major stake of Evernham Motorsports, then absorbed Petty Enterprises, which was flailing, preparing to bleed employees, and struggling for solvency. Petty was kept as the figurehead, the logo, but even that began poorly. Elliott Sadler, a former Evernham driver, won his ride back at Richard Petty with the threat of legal action although the team planned to replace him with A.J. Allmendinger.

The Richard Petty standing with hands jammed in varsity jacket against cold winds at Daytona International Speedway this February was not the confident elder who still brandishes immense appeal and sway in any NASCAR garage. He had learned that one of the team's cars -- driven by Allmendinger -- would not be granted automatic access in the season-opening Daytona 500 because the machinations of other teams had left the part-time No. 44 Dodge outside the top 35 in owner points.

Petty was down, a bit miffed because he felt NASCAR officials had misled him by saying earlier that his race car was locked into the race.

Nearly a half year later, Petty seemed a lot better with things, passing a goblet filled with wine to driver Kasey Kahne, whom he'd inherited as part of the merger. Petty knew he'd get back here eventually with Gillett, he said, and results have been encouraging recently with Kahne 13th in points and seemingly improving despite a tough situation with Dodge.

"They put the people in place and they put everything together and they just wasn't winning as much as what we thought they could," Petty said of an organization with two wins and no Chase for the Championship appearances the previous two seasons. "Then I felt like that if I brought in three or four of my people, and we got in there and maybe boost their morale a little bit, they have got everything everybody else has got, and they have not been here as long as the Roushes and the Hendricks and some of the other teams, so you're always going to be behind from that standpoint."

Petty has long had a reputation for frugality, which was perhaps perpetuated by his team remaining in its ancestral homeland of Level Cross, N.C., until recent years. Holdover team executive Robbie Loomis said that as a boss, Petty is calm and supportive.

"'Not to worry.' He says that all the time," Loomis laughed. "But I know he does it. Several years ago we had an engine-builder leaving and I was pretty upset about it, and we just drove around in his car for an hour or more talking. At the end of it I was getting ready to get out and he goes, 'All right buddy, not to worry. It'll all work out.'"

But as a motivator, Loomis said Petty can also be brutal and demanding because "he wants to get back to winning more than anything."

"He likes to hammer you when you're up because that's when he can get through to you," said Loomis, a championship-winning crew chief who left Hendrick Motorsports to work for Petty a second time. "We won in '96 at Phoenix with Bobby Hamilton. Huge deal for me, our first Cup win and I remember five minutes after we won he rubbed me on the head and said, 'Now buddy, this is what I pay you for not all those other weeks."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.