NASCAR: Penske Racing's Success May Rub off on Richard Petty Motorsports in 2013

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2012

WEDDINGTON, NC - SEPTEMBER 27:  NASCAR legend Richard Petty, the Honorary Tournament Chairman, walks on the golf course during the first round of the Chiquita Classic held at The Club at Longview on September 27, 2012 in Weddington, North Carolina.  (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images)
Michael Cohen/Getty Images

There's a certain kind of irony in what you come across when you're looking up something else.

As I was researching information for another story I'm working on, I happened upon some statistics that gave me pause.

Granted, NASCAR is a cyclical sport. One year you're way up, the next year you're potentially way down (if you don't believe that, just ask Carl Edwards about the difference for him between 2011 and 2012).

But perhaps more than any other full-time Sprint Cup organization, no other group has suffered such a cataclysmic fall over the years than Petty Enterprises/Richard Petty Motorsports.

Team owner and patriarch Richard Petty was indeed The King of NASCAR during much of his own racing career. Not only did he win an incredible 200 races, a mark likely to never be broken, he also was the first driver to win seven Sprint Cup championships in his career (a feat later tied by the late Dale Earnhardt).

He also drove a car with the most famous number in NASCAR history (No. 43) before it was overtaken by the No. 3 driven by Earnhardt.

But ever since his 200th and last career win behind the wheel at Charlotte late in the 1983 season, Richard Petty has endured more failure as a full-time owner than he did as a full-time driver.

And that is so sad for someone who has been NASCAR's greatest champion and ambassador for more than five decades.

In the 30 years since Petty's last win as a driver, his organization has spent year after year trying to regain some of its old glory, only to come up short virtually every season.

In the 20 years since Petty retired as a driver, he's enjoyed just seven wins as a full-time team owner. Two came from the late Bobby Hamilton (one win each in 1996 and 1997), one from John Andretti (1999), two from Kasey Kahne (2009) and two from Marcos Ambrose (one each in 2011 and 2012).

Do the math and that's an average of one win in every three years. Extrapolate that over the 30 years since Petty's last win, though, and that's one win every four years.

Even worse, since Petty finished eighth in the 1987 season, only two of the long list of drivers who have raced under the Petty banner has ever finished a season in the top 10 (Hamilton was ninth in 1996, Kasey Kahne was 10th in 2009). More so, since the Chase for the Sprint Cup came into existence in 2004, only one Petty driver has made NASCAR's so-called playoffs (Kahne in 2009).

This past season, Petty's current drivers, Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola, finished 18th and 20th, respectively.

What's happened over the years to the once proud Petty empire?

There's no one simple answer, but rather a combination of numerous things. Funding has been first and foremost the biggest problem. Even with the legendary Petty name as a selling point, lack of performance on the race track year after year has kept sponsors away or caused them to take their funding to other teams and organizations.

As a result, RPM has had to do a lot on a shoestring budget—and more often than not, has come up short every year in the performance and results columns.

There were also some business relationships that at first looked great on paper, but didn't produce anywhere near the results that original expectations had hoped for.

And there was also tragedy when Petty lost grandson Adam, for whom the organization was preparing to build its future around, in a fatal wreck at New Hampshire in 2000. From tragedy came good, though, as Adam's parents, Kyle and Patti, established Victory Junction Gang Camp in their son's memory to give children with oftentimes severe medical needs the chance to enjoy life in ways they normally might not.

Which brings us to the upcoming 2013 season. Richard Petty is now 75. The fabled racing organization that his late father Lee started in 1949 has made 3,249 Sprint Cup starts (that's one race for every driver that has ever driven under the Petty banner—including numerous drivers who only raced once or just a handful of times).

And while there has not been any dramatic change within the organization, there's cause for at least some optimism in 2013. The Australian native Ambrose continues to come into his own as a Sprint Cup driver and, with good fortune, could potentially be the second Petty driver to make the Chase. All Ambrose needs is to have that long hoped for breakout season, and 2013 could potentially be that season.

Almirola, meanwhile, continues to develop his talents and skills. An improvement to top 15 could certainly be in the cards in 2013 if he also gets a few breaks.

There's one other reason for increased optimism. I'm not saying that Ambrose or Almirola will unexpectedly win the Cup crown in 2013 like Brad Keselowski came out of nowhere to do in 2012.

But in a way, there is a link between Keselowski and Penske Racing and the fortunes of Ambrose, Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports.

That link is Ford. Penske has switched from Dodge to Ford after Dodge chose to leave NASCAR at the end of the 2012 season.

Ford is in a sense basking in the secondhand afterglow of Penske Racing's championship: "We have the defending champs in our stable this year," you can imagine company officials saying.

There's no doubt in my mind that Ford, Roush Fenway Racing and motor builder extraordinaire Doug Yates will not only build championship-caliber motors for Penske, but that RPM will be the direct beneficiary of the motors and residual success from RFR and Penske Racing.

How RPM handles things remains to be seen, but having two big brother organizations--including the defending Cup champion--should help a great deal. Granted, RPM doesn't have the sponsors or budgets that the other two organizations have, but Ford should be a factor in helping the Petty group improve through sharing of better equipment, technology and data. It's not like RFR or Penske Racing will reveal all their secrets, but healthy interaction and sharing with RPM should be good for everyone, hopefuly. 

How does the old saying go, a company is only as strong as its weakest link? Granted, RPM was Ford's weakest link in 2012, but with the addition of the defending Cup championship winning organization to the blue oval fold, we can only hope some of that success will rub off on RPM and maybe bring about a few surprises along the way in 2013.

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