SONOMA, Calif. — Richard Petty Motorsports has made news this season for all the wrong reasons. Caught in the financial crunch of Chrysler's bankruptcy, the team had a recent round of layoffs and companywide salary reductions.
Star driver Kasey Kahne has been openly unhappy with RPM's slow development of an improved Dodge motor, and the organization can't shake whispers about its long-term stability.
A win can cure most of those ills.
Kahne returned team co-owner Richard Petty to Victory Lane for the first time in more than a decade with a win — on a road course, of all places — in Sunday's Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Infineon Raceway
It snapped a 37-race winless streak for Kahne, and was the first victory for a Petty-owned car since John Andretti's win at Martinsville in April 1999.
"I feel just as good as (Kahne) does," The King, clad in his trademark cowboy hat and sunglasses, said before sipping on a congratulatory glass of red wine. "It's great, man. It's great."
Petty's race team teetered near collapse at the end of last season and needed a January merger with Gillett-Evernham Motorsports to carry the legendary team name into 2009. Rebranded as Richard Petty Motorsports, the four-car organization kicked off the season with a strong showing at the Daytona 500 with two cars in the top five.
But it has been a rough ride since. Manufacturer Chrysler is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and funding to RPM has slowed to a crawl as Dodge restructures. The team laid off nine employees this month while slashing salaries.
On Saturday, majority owner George Gillett agreed to sell the NHL's Montreal Canadiens in a deal that should help him fight any solvency issues.
It has made for a frustrating season for Kahne, the team's star. His criticism prompted team officials to push out a new Dodge engine, and the improved motor gave Kahne optimism.
Now he has his first victory on a road course — a remedy for any disgruntled driver.
"To me, we started the season a little bit behind," Kahne said. "But it gave the guys that work at Richard Petty Motorsports a chance to build some better race cars, some better engines and work on the setups. It's paid off. Today was a bonus, and it shows that we do have a lot of smart, really good people who work hard."
Crew chief Kenny Francis said the business issues have been unsettling, even as the No. 9 team began to turn a corner and put together consistent runs. Sunday was Kahne's third top-10 finish in five races.
"It's definitely tough times right now economically, everybody is feeling the pinch," Francis said. "What we've tried to do is not let it distract us. It's been difficult, really, to not let that distract you."
Tony Stewart, an accomplished road racer, finished second and was followed by Marcos Ambrose, who blew a motor in Saturday's practice and was forced to start at the back.
Kahne led the final 38 laps but had to stave off a final charge from Stewart in a green-white-checkered finish. Scott Speed's spin with two laps to go set up one final restart, and under a NASCAR rule started three races ago, Kahne and Stewart were side-by-side on the restart.
Kahne zipped to the front from the outside and took control.
"I learned how to drive on dirt (in sprint cars)," Kahne said. "So to come out and win on a road course … it feels great. I can't believe it."
KESELOWSKI FUTURE: Team owner Rick Hendrick will meet with Brad Keselowski this week to discuss their 2010 options. The 25-year-old might land on a team affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports. Among other possibilities: a third entry at Stewart-Haas, a full-time ride with James Finch, or Keselowski's JR Motorsports team could move up from the Nationwide series to Sprint Cup. Keselowski, already a touted prospect, boosted his stock greatly with his first Cup victory in April at Talladega.