A toast to the King's return to glory

Jay Hart

SONOMA, Calif. – The man who's won more races than anyone in NASCAR history hadn't tasted victory in a decade. So when the goblet of wine – this is Northern California, after all – passed in front of Richard Petty, he grabbed it, held it up in the air and offered a toast.

"They say it's been 10 years, that's a long time," Petty said in victory lane after celebrating Kasey Kahne's win in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday. "I can't hardly remember it's been that far back."

The King – not LeBron, but Richard Petty, the original King of the American sporting world – reigned again, if only for a day, but he'll take it.

Not since John Andretti won at Martinsville way back in 1999 has Petty celebrated a victory. That's a long time for most, an eternity for a man who won 200 races as a driver.

That it was Kahne who handed him this win hollows it out a little. Kahne isn't the King's driver; he inherited him in a business deal that's essentially rendered Petty as more of a figurehead than an owner.

Richard Petty Motorsports is no longer the mom-and-pop shop it was a few years ago when Petty Enterprises, as it was known then, was still headquartered in Level Cross, N.C., close to the Petty home. It's now an operation run by billionaire George Gillett, who over the weekend sold the Montreal Canadiens for a reported $500-plus million.

This past offseason, Gillett merged his Gillett Evernham Motorsports with Petty Enterprises to form RPM. But while Petty's name remains on the door, RPM is almost entirely GEM. It's housed in the GEM building, made up mostly of GEM employees and overseen by Gillett's son, Foster.

"All they want me to do is bring in money so they can go racing, okay," explained Petty, whose signature cowboy hat and black sunglasses have kept him as recognizable as he was when he was still driving back in 1992.

Though the victory won't go in the Petty Enterprises' win column, the King appears content in this new chapter of his racing life.

In a remarkable 60-year run, Petty Enterprises won 268 Cup races. But the organization hadn't been competitive since '98 and hadn't raced for a championship since 1983. Its time had passed.

Now, though, instead of mourning the loss, Petty has something to celebrate. Kahne's victory signals a new beginning for him and the organization, which is in danger of losing its best driver.

It's no secret that Kahne has been unhappy with the small strides RPM has made in trying to keep up with the super teams. A winner of a series-high six races in 2006, Kahne has regressed to a point of irrelevance.

Earlier this season at Phoenix, he said he'd look elsewhere if things didn't improve, which would be a huge blow to RPM. Kahne is not only one of the most talented drivers on the circuit, he's one of its most marketable, evident by the fact that Budweiser chose him to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. as its NASCAR spokesman.

One win isn't going to change all attitudes, but Kahne did have a car that was good enough to hold off Tony Stewart, a road-course master and two-time winner at Infineon Raceway. And RPM did place three cars (Kahne first, AJ Allmendinger seventh and Elliott Sadler 10th) in the top 10.

"Richard Petty Motorsports is a great company, and we keep building and trying to get better and stronger," said Kahne, who moved up two spots in the standings and now sits 13th, just three points below the cut off line for the 12-driver Chase.

"We've ran strong for the last six races, like [crew chief Kenny Francis] was saying – top-five, top-10 material. Haven't finished there, but we've been there, and today we did. We're still that close to the top 12."

As the victory lane celebration wound down, Petty grabbed the goblet one more time. It had been passed around from driver to crew chief to crew member, but there was still some wine left, and Petty wasn't going to let it go to waste.

"That's the reason I like to come to Napa Valley," he explained. "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. That was a long deal.

"It was straight, and when we got to the other end, and when I turned around, the dadgum cave was like that and like that," he continued, indicating a zig-zag motion. "It was straight going in. It wasn't too straight coming out."

This is a different side to Petty that we're not used to seeing. Then again, this is the first time Petty's been asked to talk about a victory in 10 years, and he's embracing it with both hands.

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