Commentary

Richard Petty Motorsports surging

Updated: March 9, 2010, 6:03 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

I went to see "Alice in Wonderland" on Saturday night. Surprisingly, that theme continued into Sunday afternoon with all the upside-down happenings in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta.

And I'm not just talking about Brad Keselowski's car.

Richard Petty Motorsports had a Hendrick Motorsports kind of day. And the Hendrick boys had a race like the RPM guys experience all too often.

RPM placed three drivers in the top six: Kasey Kahne fourth, Paul Menard fifth and A.J. Allmendinger sixth, Allmendinger's best finish in a non-restrictor-plate race.

Three in the top six didn't happen once all last season for RPM, so this is an encouraging sign for the merger with Yates Racing and the new alignment with Ford.

"I think Richard Petty Motorsports is back," Menard told reporters after the race.

"All of our cars were fast this weekend. It was a lot of fun out there today."

Menard was the one holdover from Yates in the merger with RPM. He raced inside the top 10 most of the day, as did Allmendinger, who got a big hug from Petty after the best showing for the famous No. 43 car in nine years.

"He is why I am here," Allmendinger said afterward about Petty. "We're learning. There are still some things we have to get better at, but all in all for the pit crew and myself, it was a really good day. Hopefully this is something we can build on the rest of the way."

Five of the top eight finishers came from the Roush/Yates engine shop, including second-place finisher Matt Kenseth. And none of these cars was running the new Ford engine.

[+] EnlargeKahne
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireKasey Kahne led the most laps at Atlanta and looked like the driver to beat for much of the race.

But the top-5 that means the most for RPM was Kahne's. He led the most laps Sunday and appeared to have the car to beat until the final stint.

"We had a really fast car and it was great most of the day," Kahne said. "The track changed quite a bit the last 50 laps and we just didn't keep up quite like we needed to win the race."

But it's the type of showing RPM needs to have a chance at keeping Kahne in the organization. He's a free agent who will have options to go elsewhere next year.

The Hendrick drivers must have wished they were somewhere else Sunday, experiencing their worst overall performance in recent memory. Hendrick didn't have a driver in the top 10, including Stewart Haas Racing's two cars, which are built at the Hendrick campus.

If you include SHR, the Hendrick stable placed at least one car in the top 10 in every event last season.

"We weren't very good," Dale Earnhardt Jr. told reporters Sunday after starting on the pole but finishing 15th. "We got two bad right-side tires and right-rear tires. It felt [like] the damn wheels were coming off. The car was vibrating so bad, I couldn't hardly see."

All the Hendrick cars had issues with tire wear, as did some other teams. Jeff Gordon, who finished 18th, said the Hendrick crew chiefs and engineers probably were too aggressive with the setup for a 1.5-mile oval that's known for tearing up tires.

"When [Goodyear] comes here and tests, you expect them to build a tire that we can abuse and that we can race hard with," Gordon said. "That obviously wasn't the case."

Not for the Hendrick cars, anyway. Gordon was asked if there was anything they could do to counteract the tire issue.

"Slow down," he said.

Apparently, that's what all the Hendrick cars did.

It was a down-the-rabbit-hole feeling all around, with positive results for RPM and negative ones for Hendrick.

Was it a fluke? For Hendrick Motorsports, probably so. For RPM, maybe not.

***

While Cup stars Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch finished 1-2, respectively, in the Camping World Truck Series race Saturday at Atlanta, some interesting things were happening behind them.

Steve Wallace finished fourth in his CWTS debut. It appears a light has clicked on this season for Wallace, the son of former Cup champion Rusty Wallace.

Steve has finished in the top 10 in all three Nationwide events this season and ranks sixth in the standings, second among the non-Cup drivers. Steve is racing in his fourth full season, but he's still only 22 years old.

His dad was 23 before competing in a Cup race and 27 before racing full-time in the Cup series.

Austin Dillon, another NASCAR offspring, also had a good day in the Atlanta truck race, finishing 10th. Dillon, a 19-year-old rookie, is the grandson of Cup team owner Richard Childress.

Dillon took a lot of criticism for triggering a first-lap crash in his Daytona debut last month. But he now has three top-15 finishes in his first four starts in the Truck series.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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