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Parrot, Penske a winning match

As the jingle in his commercial goes, Rusty Wallace is back in town, but perhaps nobody is more tickled about the whole thing than crew chief James "Buddy" Parrot.

Parrot, you see, was about as lost as Wallace's Penske Racing team was when the two found each other after the Diehard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in July. After being let go by Derrike Cope's team at the end of last season ("Believe me, I was ready to go, too."), Parrot was working for a floundering team with driver Ted Musgrave, and Penske Racing was looking for someone to replace crew chief Eddie Dickerson.

Parrot, who had worked for some pretty shabby outfits in his career, always wanted to work for a racing giant like Penske. And Penske, whose Winston Cup team had won only two races in the past year and a half, needed an experienced, take-charge kind of leader like Parrot.

The two have been zooming ever since.

"It's kinda hard to express what we have around here," Parrot said of the lavish Penske race shop in Mooresville, N.C. "We should be real disappointed on Mondays if we don't win or at least finish in the top five. It's that good, you know?"

Seven races into Parrot's stint at Penske Racing, we're finding out just how good.

At the Miller Genuine Draft 400 (Wallace's sponsor) in Richmond last month, Wallace got his first victory of the season. The following week at Dover, Del., he qualified third but finished 17th. Then, at last week's rain-delayed race at Martinsville, Va., Wallace finished second behind Geoff Bodine.

With those recent finishes, Wallace cracked the top 10 in the series points standings. And while it's too late to make a run at the series title, there's new hope for Wallace next season.

"Everybody says the new guy came in and the team started winning, so it must be because of him, but who's to say this couldn't have been ready to happen before I got here," Parrot said. "The folks around here are all talented. The main thing they needed was someone to maybe direct traffic a little bit."

Parrot, 52, will run that "it's a team effort" line on you all day, but it should be noted that he has been instrumental in the design of the new Pontiac that Wallace drove to Victory Lane at Richmond and to the second-place finish at Martinsville. And he's also a big reason the crew is turning in four-tire pit stops in under 18 seconds.

"The little things I've been doing from year to year seem to be working and the things Rusty has been doing work well, too," Parrot said. "It's just a good mixture."

So good that Parrot said he has finally found a permanent home after working with some 10 different drivers over 14 Winston Cup seasons.

"This is the last stop for Buddy Parrot," he said. "I'm going to retire from this place."

Retirement sneaking up on Petty: Six weeks from today, Richard Petty will be a racing retiree. And that sobering fact is starting to take hold of the 54-year-old stock-car king.

"I've been doing this for 35 years and I've always viewed racing as a hobby, like fishing or hunting," he said. "It's going to be hard to all of a sudden give it up."

By the way, Petty said his racing team hasn't settled on a driver to replace him in the No. 43 Pontiac next season. However, word is that Tommy Kendall remains the clear choice. Petty said the team originally had settled on Ted Musgrave, but the two sides couldn't come to terms on a deal.

Hot rods: The final day of the fifth annual Southeast Street Rod Nationals show is today at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. More than 1,400 hot rods _ some $23.8-million worth _ are on display. It's from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults and $3 for children over 5.

Next NASCAR lap: Mello Yello 500, Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, next Sunday.

Today's race

Race: Tyson Holly Farms 400.

Track: .625-mile North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway.

Green flag: 1 p.m.

Distance: 400 laps (250 miles).

Pole sitter: Alan Kulwicki.

Defending champion: Dale Earnhardt.

TV: Live on ESPN.

Radio: WFNS-910.

Notes: This is the last short-track race on the 29-race schedule. Davey Allison won the spring race here. Darrell Waltrip holds the race record of 100.716 mph, set in October 1983.

Fry's pick: Brett Bodine.