Richard Petty: first-ballot inaugural Hall of Famer. One of the greatest sportsmen of the 20th century. Proud American. And — let's be honest — so-so, at best, team owner.
I know that besmirching the name of Richard Petty is like wiping my nose on the American flag, but let's run this through here. As you now know, Richard Petty Motorsports will live to see 2011, thanks to a newly-announced buyout plan. Petty, along with Medallion Financial Corp. and DGP Investments, has taken back control of the team that bore his name.
On the surface, that's wonderful and welcome news. As long as there's been NASCAR, there's been a Petty involved at the ground level, and that's a tradition that should continue for as long as there is a NASCAR (or Pettys). But the warm amber glow tradition is one thing; the cold hard light of reality is another entirely. Which is why putting Petty back in charge of his own team might not be the cause for celebration that it seems.
Take a look at the record of Petty Enterprises at Racing Reference. Note how many wins, top 5s and championships they rang up from 1949 through the early 1980s. (Aside: glance at how many wins Petty himself amassed in certain seasons: 16 in two different years, 21 in 1971, and an astonishing 27 wins in 1967. That's a topic for another day.) It's a stunning litany of achievement, on par with anything the Yankees, Celtics, Lakers or Steelers achieved in their sports.
Now look at what happens after 1992, the year the King moved from behind the driver's seat to behind a desk (metaphorically speaking). There are a whole lot of zeroes in that win column. Petty Enterprises managed only three wins from 1984 to 2008, a span of nearly a quarter-century.
Indeed, the reason why Kasey Kahne's 2009 Sonoma win was so significant was that it returned Petty to victory lane for the first time in a decade. A decade! For a guy who practically had his own parking space in victory lane for much of his life, that's unthinkable. (And Kahne was Petty's in name only, having come under the Petty banner due to the desperation merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsports.) And in the seven-year history of the Chase, a Petty organization has placed exactly one car in NASCAR's playoffs: Kahne, who finished 10th in 2009.
What's befallen Richard Petty is a common failing across all sports: the best players rarely make the best teachers. What gets a Michael Jordan, a Wayne Gretzky or a Richard Petty to the top of their respective sports can't be taught; it's a matter of heart, will, desire and drive. That's why fair-to-middling players, those who had to compensate for their lack of talent with more hustle and in-game/race intelligence, tend to make far better coaches. A Phil Jackson, a Bobby Cox, a Richard Childress has a far better handle on how to make the ordinary extraordinary than someone who was born with innate talent.
So what's a King without a crown to do? In this case, use his stature and his networking to bring the best available talent into the upper reaches of the RPM stable. NASCAR today isn't the same as NASCAR in Petty's day, or even in the early 2000s. Different challenges, different expectations, different demands. Petty has two of NASCAR's most promising young drivers in AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose running in 2011, and it would be a shame if, for whatever reason, they didn't develop to their full potential.
Interestingly, both financial partners mentioned Petty's name, reputation and image as key elements leading to the deal. Nobody's more recognizable outside of NASCAR than Petty, not even Dale Earnhardt Jr. And while nobody wants to see, say, "Richard Petty's House O' Chicken n' Biscuits" franchises popping up all over the place, perhaps in this case, image is more important than substance. Perhaps it's time for Petty to serve as ambassador rather than head of state.