- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Top-10 finishes don't come easily in the Nextel Cup Series.
But at the same time, one top-10 finish doesn't necessarily signal a full turnaround for a struggling program, and Kyle Petty readily admits as much.
Still, Petty's recent eighth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway was proof that Petty Enterprises hasn't fallen completely off the NASCAR map. And sadly, there were times during the last few years when that appeared to be the case.
Petty, whose time is constantly in demand as he runs the race team his grandfather built, drives the car, and pours his heart and soul into the Victory Junction Gang Camp, a medical camp for children and their families. Petty and his wife, Patty, launched the camp with actor Paul Newman five years ago.
But while he's always warm and friendly around fans and media, Petty the competitor has endured hard times in the No. 45 car the last few years.
And things weren't much better in the No. 43 Dodge his father made famous. This year, though, Jeff Green is also turning in better performances, and Petty knows there are several reasons both cars are running better.
For starters, the team is now using engines from Evernham Motorsports. The added horsepower and reliability has allowed the team to focus on making the cars drive better. New crew chief Paul Andrews also has provided a boost to Petty's No. 45 ride.
All in all, heading into Sunday's Samsung/Radio Shack 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Petty is more comfortable than he has been in years.
"I feel like we've got a lot of the right pieces and a lot of the pieces we have, we've got to continue to make stronger," Petty said. "We've said that all along. For five years I've said the same thing. We've got to get better, better, better no matter what we're doing, whether it's our aero program or our engine program.
"I think the work we did with Dodge this winter, working with Ray's group on the Dodge Charger and be able to have Evernham Motorsports engines, that's basically a good baseline for us. We can look at the 9 and 19 [the Evernham cars of Kasey Kahne and Jeremy Mayfield], and if they run well and we don't run well, then obviously that means our cars have to get better and our teams have to get better. We feel like our aero program and our guys in the fab shop have done a tremendous job."
Petty has been feeling better about racing life from the outset this year, a far cry from the scene a few years ago when he chastised the team's engine supplier after failing to qualify for July's Pepsi 400 at Daytona.
Engines, though, only take a team so far at Daytona, which is why Petty knows the improvement is across the board.
"I said at Daytona when we qualified well, we felt like the guys in the fab shop and our aero stuff was pretty good," Petty said. "We just hadn't been able to prove it to any people. We went down there and qualified pretty good, so it showed that was there. We have to work on other areas. We feel like we've got most of the bases covered. I won't say we've got every base covered, but we've got somebody standing on every base and we've just got to make sure we get more people on those bases and get stronger in those areas."
Petty says the morale at the shop is higher than it has been in years, another sign things are turning around. The addition of Andrews, who won the 1992 championship as Alan Kulwicki's crew chief, certainly hasn't hurt matters.
Andrews has bounced around a bit since leaving Roush Racing, but with Petty, he appears to have found a home that fits.
"What Paul has done, he's brought stability to the 45 team, and that's bled over and helped Greg Steadman, who was running the 45 team. I think that's helped [Steadman] focus on the 43 Cheerios Dodge Charger instead of having to worry about the Brawny Dodge, too," Petty said. "Just like I said when we hired Paul, we went through two or three different guys [before hiring him].
"Where we're at as a team and where we're at as an organization, we just didn't have time for somebody to come up through the ranks," he said. "We had to hire somebody [from the outside] this time. We'd tried it [the other way] two or three times, we had to hire somebody this time who had the experience and who had the know-how and had the ability to come in and run the operation from pit road.
"From calling pit stops and pit strategy, Paul fit the bill perfectly. I think he takes a lot of pressure off Greg, and that helps everybody at Petty Enterprises."
After consecutive short-track events, Petty will be running his new Dodge at one of the circuit's fastest tracks this weekend. Exactly what that will mean for his Charger is the big question.
The new car has a distinct appearance, but that has proved to be a bit of a detriment thus far because of the design of the car's nose.
"There are issues with the Dodge nose," Petty said.
"The problem is when you put 100,000 to 150,000 people in the grandstand and a bunch of people in the infield, the racetrack is going to get dirty and there's going to be a lot of trash on the racetrack.
"I know at California we absolutely struggled with overheating. We were hot the whole time. We pulled all our tape off, but you pull all your tape off and the next thing you do is catch a hot dog wrapper or a potato chip bag, and that's the problem with the nose from our standpoint. It has nothing to do with the aerodynamics, really. I think if you talk to the people, nobody has a problem with it aerodynamically."
So why did Dodge design the nose so that hot dog wrappers could ruin someone's day? Business reasons, Petty said.
"When we really sat down and the Dodge people really sat down and tried to design the Charger, they wanted the Dodge to be a car the fans could look at and say, 'Hey, there goes a Dodge Charger.' That's what that grille does for us. It says, 'There goes a Dodge Charger.' I guess part of the price we're having to pay now is from a heating standpoint.
"We're having to be really careful and watch the grille and keep the grille clean. We don't want cookie-cutter cars. We don't want the Dodge Charger to look like a Ford or Chevy. We want it to look like the Dodge Charger. That's the price we're paying right now. We're going to have to figure out a way to make it work. If NASCAR does step in and give us some help, it would be greatly appreciated. If they don't, then we're just going to have to figure it out ourselves."
Figuring things out themselves are what Petty and his team have been trying to do on a weekly basis for the past few years. And this time, they just might be onto something.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
Kyle Petty has been searching for the antidote for years. But this time, he just might have found it.