Overhaul revs optimism

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Robbie Loomis, the new executive vice president at Petty Enterprises, sat in a director's chair outside the No. 43 transporter this week and said he is actually the team's CEO.

"That's chief encouragement officer," Loomis said, only half joking. "This team has worked hard. Its members are committed and they have the heart. What they needed was the confidence."

For some organizations it looks so easy, this sport of high speed stock car racing. The crew does its job, the driver gets in the car on Sunday, and as expected often arrives in victory lane.

It was once that way for Petty Enterprises, as it earned 268 victories and 10 championships to remain the winningest team in NASCAR history. But since Richard Petty (seven championships, 200 victories in 34 years) retired in 1992 - and even for 10 years before that - finding the keys to a winning or competitive car has been difficult.

In the past 21 years, Petty cars have won just three times, the last time in 1999.

But Sunday, the team's new driver Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Nextel Cup champion, had Petty's famous No. 43 on the pole for the Daytona 500 for nearly an hour before being knocked off. It was the first time the 43 had been at the front of any on-track activity at Daytona in years.

Tomorrow, when the 500 takes the green flag, Petty Enterprises will have two cars, the 43 of Labonte and the 45 of Kyle Petty, in the lineup with a legitimate chance to win.

Labonte will start in the eighth spot, while Petty will be two rows back in 12th.

"This is the first time since Adam died that we have hope," said Petty, who lost his son in an accident during a practice session at New Hampshire nearly six years ago.

It's early and those involved are trying to maintain their poise, but it appears the keys to a winning car may come with the names Loomis, Todd Parrott and Labonte.

They all wear championship rings - Loomis as the crew chief for Jeff Gordon in 2001, Parrott as the crew chief for Dale Jarrett in 1999 and Labonte with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2000.

"All of us are big Petty Enterprises fans," said Gordon, the four-time Cup champion who won last year's 500. "I think they definitely have some positive changes happen over the offseason, obviously pulling from outside their organization with Robbie, Todd Parrott and Bobby. They've got some things building in the right direction for them, and I think we're all excited to see that happening.

"During the Twin 150, I saw in the back of my mirror those guys dicing it up, Bobby and Kyle making some great runs. You've got to be happy for them."

Loomis, Parrott and Labonte were each ready for a change at the end of the 2005 season, but many were shocked at their decisions to join the long-struggling Petty Enterprises.

Parrott, who is the crew chief on Labonte's 43, said: "Looking at the points, people would think it's a step down. But that's not how I look at it."

"Everyone out here wants to win," said Labonte, who was set with Gibbs if he wanted to be. "Not everyone is willing to stick his neck out to do it. My goal is this: By the time I leave here I want to be leaving an organization that has people knocking its doors down to get in."

Yesterday, Petty emerged from a meeting in his team's transporter and said: "I think my 45 car can win races this year and I know the 43 can. I'm extremely confident."

Petty paused, thinking about what he had just said and smiled cynically.

"When we came down here last week, people were saying 'Bobby Labonte was an idiot for joining the Pettys,' " he said. "Now, after coming close to the pole, being the fastest car in every practice and having solid runs in the Twins, Bobby, Todd and Robbie have started being given the respect they deserve. Yes, it's very nice to get some positive attention."

Six years ago, when Dodge announced it was coming back into racing, Petty made the decision to switch manufacturers. He hoped getting in on the ground floor, with access to Dodge engineers and all the information developed by Dodge teams would jump start the Petty organization.

But despite the team's long hours in the shop and the information access, the Petty teams lagged behind.

"It's like we were 85 percent of the way there, but couldn't get the last 15," Petty said. "When Robbie and Bobby and Todd came on board they brought that 15 percent with them. ... we've taken a major leap.

"We were working so hard, but sometimes you're too close. Robbie brought in some things he was doing at Hendrick's [Motorsports], Todd at Yates [Racing] and Bobby at Joe Gibbs. We looked at it and slapped out heads, 'Idiots!' we said. 'Why didn't we do that?'

"Sometimes you need someone from the outside to come in who knows how to win. People forget how to win."

Crewman Andrew Harris, a tire specialist in his second year with Petty Enterprises, put it this way: "Those three guys have a 'We're going to win attitude,' " he said. "And they brought knowledge we didn't have. Everybody's spirit has been uplifted."

Since 2000, Petty cars have not finished in the top five. Last season, as the team took baby steps, Kyle Petty managed a top 10 finish twice.

Petty Enterprises used to know how to win. Parrott, who worked for the Pettys 22 years ago as a tire carrier, knows the meaning of the team's history.

"The No. 43, that's Richard Petty," Parrott said. "The 43 has had a number of drivers in its seat since Richard retired, but they've all been like seat fillers. It's still Richard Petty's 43, and there are a lot of people out there waiting for it to do good again.

"Now, all of us are together, Bobby is in the seat and I believe we're going to get results."

As early as tomorrow?

"It would be scary to win this early," Labonte said. "But it would also be awesome."

smm2me@aol.com

Daytona 500

Site -- Daytona Beach, Fla.

When -- Tomorrow, 2:30 p.m.

TV -- Chs. 11, 4 (1:30 p.m.)

Track -- Daytona International Speedway (2.5-mile tri-oval)

Distance -- 200 laps, 500 miles

Purse -- About $18 million, with a minimum of $1,438,155 going to the winner. Last place pays at least $224,665.

Pole-sitter -- Jeff Burton

2005 winner -- Jeff Gordon

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