DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Oh, the strain of it. The media crush. The sponsor demands. The autograph seekers. The turmoil. The tension.
It has been enough to make Daytona 500 pole-sitters shudder. Enough to send them scurrying out of sight or hurtling toward nervous breakdown. Enough to make them short of time and short of temper.
Kyle Petty, the pole-sitter for today's Daytona 500, was lounging among leather cushions in his team transporter's sitting room, his face hidden behind the lifestyle section of a local newspaper.
"Oh, yeah, a lot of pressure," came the voice from behind the paper. "You can see me shaking, can't you?"
Petty was reading about Michael Jackson, not Davey Allison. He was more interested in the inner voice Billy Ray Cyrus heard at a Neil Diamond concert that turned him from baseball to music, than in the pressure building for the 35th Daytona.
He is the grandson of Lee Petty, the first winner of this race, and the son of Richard Petty, the seven-time Daytona winner who has seven Winston Cup titles.
This sport has been waiting for Kyle Petty to come front and center ever since he stepped inside an ARCA 200 car for his first pro super speedway race here on Feb. 11, 1979, and had the impudence to win.
It took him eight more years to win his first Winston Cup racand another six to mature into a championship contender.
But today, when the green flag falls, there will be a symbolic passing of a baton.
Over the past five decades, Richard Petty worked to lead the sport he made his own. Now, in the first race Petty will not run in 33 years, his son Kyle will lead the field to the starting line for what could be the start of a new beginning.
And Kyle Petty will do it in a bright green, red, yellow and blacMello-Yellow Pontiac, made famous by Tom Cruise in the movie "Days of Thunder."
"I don't look at this race like Daddy did," said Kyle. "Daddy started getting excited about the Daytona 500 in July. The way I look at it, a lot of people can name the Winston Cup champion for the past 15 years, but they can't name the Daytona 500 winner for the past 10. If the championship went with winning this race, then I'd feel some pressure. But it doesn't. To me, this is just another race."
He doesn't say it with disrespect. He says it reflectively. When Lee and Richard Petty began their careers, Daytona was the only super speedway. When a driver won at Daytona, he earned as much as $60,000. The next week, at a short track, he might earn $1,500.
"It's not like that anymore," said Kyle. "Next week there's anotherace that will also pay well and carry just as much weight toward a championship. I think I've wanted to win a championship since I was 16. I still feel like I've got plenty of time."
While Richard Petty represented the familiar comfort of an easy chair, his son Kyle, at 31, is finally fulfilling his promise with all the subtlety of a flashy, high-tech Harley.
"When I won the pole, my first thoughts weren't about familhistory," said Kyle. "I didn't think, 'God, it took this long to get the pole and it comes the season after Dad retired.' I haven't even talked to Dad about this yet.
"The main thing I thought was that the momentum from lasseason has carried over. What the pole did for me was bring a sense of relief that what we did last year was going to benefit us this season. It felt pretty good."
A year ago, he finished sixth here and then his team got strongeas the year progressed. Over the last half of the season, he scored more championship points than any other driver and wound up fifth in the standings, with two wins and 15 top-10 finishes.
He's a race car driver now, but that doesn't mean he grew up dreaming about it. "It's like if your dad was a plumber, you don't go to bed at night dreaming about being a plumber," he said.
So, while Richard Petty raced to victories here, Kyle grew uplaying on the swings and sliding board in the infield with Davey Allison and the Jarrett kids, including Dale Jarrett, who will start on the front row with him today. Together, they dreamed of football, basketball and baseball.
"I've never dreamed about being great like Richard Petty or eveof driving a race car here," said Kyle. "For me, it's a forgone conclusion. I can't race -- Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip -- no one can race against Daddy's record. If we all raced from now until the end of time, he's still going to be the best ever. If you beat your head against that wall, you're going to wind up in an asylum."
It could be an act. Kyle Petty says he might be looking at thingthis way to save himself from unfulfilled expectations, "but you'd have to ask a psychiatrist to find that out." He says he wants to be compared to his peers -- to Earnhardt and Allison and Bill Elliott.
"I don't think anyone sets out to win an unprecedented numbeof races and championships," he said. "But every one of us sits down and says, 'I'm better than every driver out there, so let's go win some races.' You just do it and what happens, happens."
Five years ago, when he joined the Felix Sabates teamsomething happened. Sabates told him to either be a country singer or be a stock car driver -- he couldn't be both driving for him.
"He hasn't played the guitar in public since," said Sabates. "Hsimply woke up and decided he was going to win and be a champion. And when he discovered we were serious about providing him with good, first-class equipment he became committed."
But he didn't become a cookie-cutter driver. Like his father, hsays what he thinks. And like his father, he is a product of his own generation.
"Yeah, I'm different," he said, laughing, running his fingerthrough his curly shoulder-length brown hair. "Everyone else has the NASCAR standard-issue haircut. But that's not me."
There is a lot about Kyle Petty that isn't standard issue. Sabatesays Petty has a "bigger heart" than any driver out there, and he likes to tell this story to prove his point:
"When we had our two teams [rookie Kenny Wallace's is thother] down here testing last month, Kyle's team was doing very well and Kenny's was doing very badly," Sabates said. "Kyle went over to him and suggested he take a few laps in his car."
Wallace did, clocking the same times as Petty. "When Kenncame back in, Kyle went up to him and said, 'See. It isn't you. It's the car and they'll fix the car.' "
That would be enough to demonstrate a decided differencbetween Petty and his contemporaries. Because unless drivers are on teams where they are expected to share -- and Sabates' teams are not set up that way -- drivers generally do not like anyone getting in their seats.
But Sabates has more to tell. When the tests were over, aneveryone was back at the team garages, Petty called Sabates to talk about the qualifying engine that was being built specifically for qualifying here.
"Kyle calls me up and reminds me that his car was running goowith a regular engine and that he finished fifth in points last season," said Sabates. "He said, 'Let's give the qualifying motor to Kenny. It'll make him feel better and I'll do OK without it. And if I don't on the qualifying run, I'll do well in the 125s and if I don't, we'll still get in the race because we were fifth in points.'
"Do you know any other driver out there who would hand over chance to run for the pole to help a rookie teammate he had no rapport with until a month ago?" asked Sabates. "I don't. I told him no. That I was building only one hand grenade and he was going to use it."
And he did. Perhaps if Kyle Petty wins today, he'll change himind about the importance of Daytona.
"All I know is that I don't believe everything I read," he said. "I don't believe winning this race will make me great. But if we win and it leads to a championship, that's another story. Ask me about it in November."
Fastest race: 177.602 Buddy Baker, Olds, 1980.
Slowest race: 124.740 Junior Johnson, Chevy, 1960.
Most starters: 68 in 1960.
Fewest starters: 40, 1970 through 1974, and 1985.
Most money won: $244,050, Davey Allison, 1992.
Most starts: 32, Richard Petty.
Most consecutive starts: 27, Richard Petty, 1966 through 1992.
Oldest winner: Bobby Allison, 1988, 50 years, 2 months, 11 days.
Youngest winner: Richard Petty, 1964, 26 years, 4 months, 18 days.
Most victories: 7, Richard Petty.
Most top-5 finishes: 11, Richard Petty.
Most poles: 4, Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker (tie).
Largest margin of victory: 2 laps, Richard Petty, 1973.
Most wins, make: Chevrolet and Ford, 8 each.
Most laps led: 184 (of 200), Richard Petty, 1964.
Most leaders: 15, 1974 and 1989.
Fewest leaders: 3, 1972.
Most cautions: 11, 1968.
Fewest cautions: 0, 1959, 1961, 1962.
Most lead changes: 60, 1974.
Fewest lead changes: 6, 1964.
Most caution laps: 60, 1968.
Fewest caution laps: 0, 1959, 1961 and 1962.
Start to finish
Kyle Petty today will attempt to join this list and become the eighth pole winner to take the Daytona 500:
Year .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Winner
1962 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Fireball Roberts
1966 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . Richard Petty
1968 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Cale Yarborough
1980 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Buddy Baker
1984 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Cale Yarborough
1985 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Bill Elliott
1987 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Bill Elliott