Petty in a Catch-43

Richard Petty doesn't completely shun alcohol, evidenced after Kasey Kahne's win at Sonoma when The King didn't pass on the celebratory wine being poured in victory lane. The imbibing surprised many onlookers, most of whom wrongfully believed Petty was a teetotaler.

Far from it, he said. In fact, when out in wine country, The King said he'd found himself on a tour or two of the vineyards.

"That's the reason I like to come to Napa Valley," he explained after Kahne's road-course win in June. "I got in a cave the other night, they had wine down one side in big barrels and then they had wine down the other side. As we walked in, I think we drunk something out of every barrel. It was straight going in, it wasn't too straight coming out."

Enjoying some good vino is one thing. Publicly supporting alcohol is a whole different story, and over the course of his career Petty kept the family business away from relationships with beer, wine and liquor companies. It came at the request of his mother, who asked him to never allow any form of alcohol to be represented on his race cars.

He honored that promise and there were no alcohol-related sponsorships, and no participation in NASCAR's second-tier series when it was sponsored by Anheuser-Busch. His cars didn't race in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout that kicks off each season, nor would they have anything to do with the Bud Pole Award.

And when his Petty Enterprises merged in January with Gillett-Evernham Racing, Petty said the Budweiser sponsorship on Kahne's car would stay right there – and not touch any of the teams Petty was bringing into the deal.

All of this is why Petty now faces a huge moral dilemma: AJ Allmendinger was arrested in North Carolina early Thursday morning and charged with drunken driving.

Allmendinger, driver of Richard Petty Motorsports' No. 44, has admitted he had drinks at dinner and made an irresponsible decision in driving home.

Petty expressed his displeasure in a statement released Thursday afternoon.

"I am deeply disappointed this has happened," Petty said in the statement. "AJ has accepted full responsibility for his actions and will work to make this right. On behalf of everyone at Richard Petty Motorsports we sincerely apologize to our fans and partners."

The King didn't pull Allmendinger from his ride this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, where RPM officials were probably going to announce that Allmendinger will drive Petty's famed No. 43 next season. On the hood is supposed to be sponsorship from Best Buy, which plans to move from a shared role on teammate Elliott Sadler's car to a primary role with Allmendinger.

It's a big deal for Allmendinger, who has scratched and clawed his way through a rocky three years in NASCAR since fleeing the now-defunct Champ Car Series. Dumped by Red Bull at the end of last season, he charmed his way into Gillett-Evernham Motorsports and so enamored management that the team tried to fire Sadler to give Allmendinger his ride.

When Sadler, who had an ironclad contract, threatened to sue, the team agreed to reach into its own pockets to give Allmendinger a chance. He survived the January merger with Petty Enterprises, raced his way into the Daytona 500 and finished third – enough to convince the newly branded organization to keep his team going.

Although the results were mixed, Allmendinger agreed to waive large portions of his salary to keep his team afloat. RPM, still captivated by his self-deprecating humor and underdog appeal, decided in April to sign Allmendinger through the 2010 season.

It was a decision made extremely early in the planning process, especially since RPM still didn't have sponsorship for Allmendinger this season and had nothing locked in for next year, either.

But it signified he's a central figure in their long-term plans, a role he's continued to fill even though he's just 25th in the standings with only four top-10s.

It's Allmendinger who is scheduled to drive the final three races of this season in a Ford as RPM prepares to leave Dodge at the end of the year, and it's Allmendinger who is getting Best Buy, even though Sadler has been a recognizable and popular pitchman for the company.

Should that change now?

It all depends on who is asking.

Allmendinger's arrest could happen to anyone we know. He had some drinks, said he felt fine when the evening ended, and got behind the wheel. How many drinks did he have? One? Two? Ten? Enough, at least, to blow an .08 and classify as legally drunk in North Carolina. It comes with an automatic loss of license for 30 days and a December court date.

There's certainly no excuse for drinking and driving under any circumstances, but it happens all the time when people have a few drinks and feel capable of driving home. But we're not professional race car drivers or employees of a NASCAR icon with a long-standing aversion to any association with alcohol.

Now it's up to The King to decide if Allmendinger is still worthy of the keys to the No. 43, that this transgression is no big deal. It comes with the risk of Petty being a wee bit hypocritical if he ultimately lets this slide, but it's a decision he must make.

Yes, Petty is mostly a figurehead with this new race team, which has spent much of this season allowing co-owner George Gillett Jr. and his sons to slap Band-Aids on all of its problems. But this decision – the future of the No. 43 – is one Petty has to handle himself.