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Petty's recruiting could bear fruit

Kyle Petty ponders his family's legacy with a final shake of hot sauce on a toasted tuna sandwich.

"Yeah, there's a lot of hope around here right now," he said of Petty Enterprises while applying the top piece of bread. "But everybody has hope this time of year."

But in recent years that hope has been unrealistic for one of NASCAR's most storied but recently woeful teams.

Now, Petty said, there is tangible hope. Remembering that there has been no such hope around his shop since his son and driver, Adam, died at age 20 in 2000 is both heartening and sad for Petty.

"You felt like here was the kid coming along, he has a Busch (Series) season under his belt, he'll get one more under his belt. We started that 2000 season where he was killed and we were like, "Yeah, we're going to run some Cup races. We're going to kind of establish ourselves this year and move forward,' " Petty said of his son, who died during a Busch Series practice at New Hampshire. "I think everybody at Petty Enterprises was excited that year. Everybody was excited about the prospect of who we were, where we were headed, what we were doing. But that changes. So, to me it's the first time since Adam's accident where we felt like, "Hey, we're going to be able to breathe this year.' "

New spirit was breathed into the organization late last season when it landed three key players with title-winning experience.

First it lured back Robbie Loomis, who worked at Petty Enterprises for 11 years before leaving to crew chief Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports. Loomis, who grew up in Forest City, had remembered his time at Petty fondly. And when his mother's illnesses and a desire to spend less time traveling prompted him to explore new opportunities, Petty gave him a position overseeing its entire racing program.

Loomis, who won the Nextel Cup with Gordon in 2001, quickly insisted the team be treated with reverence, giving his team manager special instructions on how to announce to the race shop the signing of the second key player: Bobby Labonte.

"I said to put confidence in those guys that with all the stuff that's going on, think about them like they're the Green Bay Packers," Loomis recalled. "They're still the winningest organization out there. Yeah, we haven't won since '99 with John Andretti, but they're still the winningest organization overall and let those guys know we can do this, we can accomplish some things. And then I said, "Then throw in, I'd like to announce Bobby Labonte is coming.' And the guys went nuts."

Within two months, Petty had another credible piece, and a sense of family was heavily involved again. Labonte, the 2000 Nextel Cup champion who lives in the middle of Petty country in Randolph County, N.C., left Joe Gibbs Racing after 11 years to drive the No. 43 in which Richard Petty won seven championships. The excitement was palpable far beyond the race shop.

"I was in the supermarket and this old lady came to me and said, "Drive that 43 car good, now,' " Labonte said, mimicking her insistent tone. "It's a Randolph County thing."

A rogue's gallery has filled the No. 43 since Richard Petty retired with a series-record 200 wins in 1992. Adam Petty, who had 46 starts in NASCAR's top three series by age 19, was to take over for Kyle in the No. 45 Dodge in 2001 with Kyle, now 46, moving to a third car. For the first time since, Kyle said, the team realized the importance of hiring a credentialed driver. With 21 wins and a championship in 2000, Labonte, 41, fit the bill. This week he posted the sixth-best qualifying time for Sunday's Daytona 500.

"If you asked me four or five years ago I'd have said it wasn't important (to have a proven winner)," Kyle Petty said. "If you asked me three years ago, I'd probably have said it was a little more important and if you asked me last year I probably would have said it's critical."

The third key addition is Todd Parrott, who won a title with Dale Jarrett in 1999. He'll be Labonte's crew chief.

Kyle Petty and Labonte live about a half-mile apart and Kyle quietly recruited Labonte for years when they saw each other in the neighborhood.

Loomis sees the same potential chemistry between Labonte and Petty as he did at Hendrick with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson because of their similarities. Both have a taste for the organic markets of Greensboro, N.C. Both were bred into racing families. In his own sarcastic way, Labonte detailed those similarities as, "Well, we shop at the same grocery store. We eat the same food," but there is clearly more.

"Kyle and I are similar in a lot of things we do. It's kind of weird," Labonte said.

Loomis enters this season predicting his team will win "multiple races," but Petty is guarded, hoping for a slow progression to a consistent top-15 team.

"For the first time in a long while we feel like we've got a toehold on something," he said. "It's been a long time for that, and we want to get this right."