Pole-sitting sits fine with Kyle Petty King's son rejects Daytona pressure

February 14, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA — 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.

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