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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Kyle Petty
Age: 46
Crew Chief: Bill Wilburn
#45 Wells Fargo Dodge
(0 wins, 0 top 5's, 2 top 10s, 3 top 15's)
Pts: 32nd Rating 48.7

The 2006 season saw lots of ups and downs for Petty Enterprises, and Kyle Petty's year reflected this. Petty scored two top ten finishes, but also struggled with consistent sponsorship as well as maintaining a top 35 spot. After spending much of the year outside the top 35, Petty strung together several strong finishes during the Chase to secure a starting spot for next year. The late charge may have saved the #45 from an uncertain future in 2007.
During the offseason, Petty Enterprises created serious buzz by landing some of the top talent in NASCAR. Robbie Loomis, Todd Parrot and Bobby Labonte all joined the organization at around the same time. This brought added excitement and expectations to the Petty's organization, not only for Labonte's #43 car, but also for the #45.

The season started decently as Petty finished eighth at the spring Atlanta race, and also had 18th's at Bristol, Talladega and Darlington. The summer however, was rough for Petty. From July to the start of September, he went 11 races finishing worse than 27th, including six straight races finishing worse than 30th. This tailspin pushed him outside the top 35. For his part, he made every race on time.

Prior to the Chase, Petty hired Bill Wilburn as crew chief and slid Paul Andrews over to Labonte's car. Wilburn, who has worked for Hendrick, Penske and Yates among others, brought tangible improvement during the final ten races. It started with a 22nd at Charlotte. Not a great result, but considering how he had ran the second half of the year, it was improvement. The next week at Martinsville he scored his second top ten of the year. It was his best race of the season, his driver rating was a respectable 80.1. He stayed in the top fifteen practically the whole day before closing it out in tenth. Petty followed up with at 17th at Atlanta, an 11th Texas and a 25th at Phoenix, finishing on the lead lap. Meanwhile Sterling Marlin faltered in the same stretch, opening the door for Petty to rejoin the top 35.

Anytime a team is struggling to finish races, it is a rough year. When you look at where Petty and his team were for the last five years, it's easier to notice the progress. From 200-2004, Petty had two top tens total. Since 2005, he's scored four. It proves that not only are they getting closer equipment-wise, but Petty can still wheel a car.

Two of the biggest reasons for the rebound are personnel and engines. Loomis and Andrews both won Championships as crew chiefs. Wilburn also has over 20 years of Cup experience, and famously helped David Gilliland win a 2006 Busch race with less resources than Petty has. The talent level has improved over the past year.

The other big difference was Petty's decision to switch to Evernham engines before the 2005 season. The previous three seasons Petty used Mike Ege engines, but grew frustrated with the lack of performance. The switch has given an obvious boost in horspower and speed. Evernham engines are obviously strong, but they are susceptible to failures. Petty lost two engines and Bobby Labonte had three failures. The top engine builders averaged a 3% failure rate, Evernham had 5%.

Petty is no longer a threat to win or consistently run up front. Don't discount him as a skilled driver though. Over his career he has won at short tracks, road courses, intermediate and speedways. His strength remains his experience. His 785 Career starts places him 6th all time. After Texas, he was technically the active leader in starts until Ricky Rudd unretired.for 2007. Like most veterans, this experience shows up at the short tracks like Bristol and Martinsville.

One of the most encouraging parts of Petty’s season was his success on speedways. He finished tenth and 17th at Atlanta and an 11th at Texas. If PE can continue improvement at the 1.5 and 2 mile speedways the solid results should continue.

The biggest challenge for the team is the Car of Tomorrow. PE has limited resources compared to the larger teams. They can’t simply throw additional people and money at the new project. It's a large enough task keeping up with the three and four car teams in Cup, let alone building two different cars simultaneously. PE is also at a disadvantage by not having a Busch team for collecting data.

With so many new teams entering Cup next year Petty will again walk the owners' points tightrope. He can't afford to squander his guaranteed starting spot during the first five races. If he can stay on the track his equipment should allow him to finish in the top 25 most weeks. If bad luck or mechanical gremlins strike, disaster may follow.

When the Petty’s run well, everyone associated with NASCAR benefits. Petty can drive as long as he wants to. He has earned that right with his respected status in the garage and his incredible charity work. Kyle Petty and PE as a whole play a large role in NASCAR. Although the performance has slid, there are still few names bigger than Petty in NASCAR. Here's hoping Kyle Petty continues to have the chance to drive every week.

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