Good for RPM, great for NASCAR

Surrounded by barrel after barrel of Napa Valley's finest, the man with the signature cowboy hat and boots couldn't help but take a sip -- or two or three -- as he passed through the long, cavernous wine cave.

"I think we drunk something out of every barrel," Richard Petty said as he recalled this side trip during last weekend's visit to Infineon Raceway. "That was a long deal. It was straight, and when we got to the other end and when I turned around, that dadgum cave was like that," he motioned, zigzagging his hand.

On Sunday, Petty found himself sipping a glass of wine in Victory Lane with a driver sponsored by Budweiser.

He could have motioned zigzagging again, because the journey there was just as adventurous as the one through the wine cave.


" It had been 10 years -- John Andretti at Martinsville in 1999 -- since NASCAR's all-time wins leader visited Victory Lane as an owner.

" Over the past two years Petty had gone from the owner of Petty Enterprises to a minority owner of Petty Enterprises with Boston Ventures to the co-owner/figurehead of Richard Petty Motorsports after a merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

" He'd moved his operations from their longtime home of Level Cross, N.C., to Mooresville, N.C., to Statesville, N.C.

" He'd inherited a car sponsored by an alcohol company after spending his entire career avoiding such deals at the request of his mother.

There also are subplots, such as the filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy by Dodge that could find the King of motorsports partnered with Japan-based Toyota next season, that will make the coming months just as adventurous.

"It shows that even at 72 years old you can reinvent yourself," said Petty's son, Kyle, who called Kahne's victory for TNT.

The man known simply as "King" is a survivor. He's willing to do whatever it takes to maintain a presence in a sport that might not have reached today's popularity without him.

While others might have closed shop and driven off into the sunset during these tough economic times, he's found ways to move forward even if it's meant taking a step backward to get there.

"He has done a tremendous job of rolling with the punches and just trying to stay a part of a sport he loves that much," Kyle said.

Having Petty in Victory Lane not only was good for RPM -- which needs all the positives it can get with sponsors pulling back and Kahne pondering whether he wants to remain through the end of his contract next year -- but for all of NASCAR.

"Seeing Richard Petty back in Victory Lane was a victory for every NASCAR fan and anyone who roots for great comebacks," NASCAR chairman Brian France said. "It means that NASCAR is as competitive as ever and is the best racing in the world.

"Richard Petty is one of America's enduring icons, so the victory is really a feel-good story for any sports fan, which is good for everyone involved in the sport."

Petty is what Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are to golf, what Michael Jordan is to basketball, what Muhammad Ali is to boxing.

In many ways Petty is bigger because he never left the sport after retiring as a driver.

He's the biggest link between NASCAR's past and future. Having him win is important in a time when the governing body is trying to keep the traditional fan, the ones who grew up watching the famous No. 43 capture seven Cup titles and seven Daytona 500s, in the fold.

"It's like having a guy win a game or pitch a no-hitter and having Nolan Ryan come out and congratulate him," Kyle said. "That's a big thing for baseball. and [having Petty in Victory Lane] is a big thing for motorsports."

Kahne didn't realize how big until he saw Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR, congratulating Petty.

"I've won 11 races, counting the All-Star race, and I've never seen Mike Helton come to Victory Lane and congratulate [anyone]," he said. "I'm sure he's really excited for the team that wins, but he came into Victory Lane to shake Richard Petty's hand.

"To see that, to see the fans and how excited they were to see Richard in Victory Lane, was eye-opening to me."

It was eye-opening for a lot of people. From runner-up Tony Stewart to fans of old rivals Bobby Allison and David Pearson, everybody was happy to see Petty back in the place where he stood 200 times as a driver.

"It's good for all of us," said Lee White, who heads up Toyota Racing Development. "Anyone that wasn't happy to see that really isn't into the sport."

It was a big moment for Petty, as well. There were times when he wondered if he ever would taste the fruits of victory again. There were times when he wondered if he would have to find some place to occupy his weekends other than the track.

Again, he did what he had to do to survive. Some of those decisions weren't popular. Kyle, then actively involved running the company, wasn't behind the move to Mooresville. The merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsports left him without a ride or a role in the company.

He was bitter to a degree.

But nobody was happier to see Petty standing next to Kahne than Kyle.

"On a personal level, to be sitting there seeing your father in Victory Lane, that's a big deal," Kyle said. "If we were to go back a year to when there was still a Petty Enterprises in Level Cross then I might be a little more emotional about it.

"Still, part of it is Petty Enterprises because Richard Petty is still there."

Petty is there because he knows nothing else. Racing has been a part of his life since he began hanging out with his father, Lee, at the track at the age of 7.

He doesn't play golf. He's not into hunting. Being at the track is his hobby, what he does because he loves it, not because of the potential for a big paycheck.

"Sometimes it gets kind of aggravating, but overall it's really what I want to do and it's what I have always done and I always feel like [I'll do] as long as I can do it," Petty said. "I want to keep doing it because if I ever pull over to the side of the road, somebody is going to go by me, and I don't like that part."

Kyle says it best. His dad never retired from racing. He just retired from driving.

"What I mean from that, he didn't retire from life," he said. "His life is racing and his life is being at the racetrack. His life is hearing those race cars."

Kyle likens his father to former Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, who stalked the Crimson Tide sideline for 25 years before stepping down at the age of 69 with more wins than anyone in Division I at that time.

It shows that even at 72 years old you can reinvent yourself. He has done a tremendous job of rolling with the punches and just trying to stay a part of a sport he loves that much.

-- Kyle Petty on father Richard

A year later, he passed away.

"[Bryant] just wanted to stand with the players and be a part of the game he loved so much," Kyle said. "That's the way Richard Petty is. He still just wants to be a part of something he loves so much."

Joked Petty, "I'm a hardhead. That's the reason I keep coming back."

Petty doesn't write the checks or handle day-to-day operations at RPM as he did at Petty Enterprises. He is more of a sounding board, somebody to guide young drivers such as Kahne and A.J. Allmendinger with his life experiences.

He spent over 90 minutes talking to Kahne in his motor coach earlier this season at Darlington when there didn't appear to be a light at the end of RPM's tunnel.

"Just an awesome guy to have around and to be able to talk to and learn things from," Kahne said.

Petty has a lot to share. He was a part of this sport before sponsors became the financial backbone of organizations and when manufacturer support wasn't there.

His parents ran the business out of their pockets with the Level Cross shop adjacent to their home.

"Always look at when times are tough, tough's got to get tougher," Petty said.

Nobody in this sport is tougher than Petty. He won more races than anybody because he wasn't willing to settle for second. He has survived as an owner because he doesn't know the meaning of quit.

"He has become the iconic figurehead," Kyle said. "When you think Elvis you think music. When you think Richard Petty you think racing."

Seeing Petty in Victory Lane, sipping a glass of wine as he did earlier in the week in the wine cave, was a reminder that the sport needs its figureheads.

And it needs them to taste success, particularly in these hard times.

"I'm a very optimistic person," Petty said. "Just because we didn't do it yesterday, that doesn't mean we can't do it today. Just like one of those deals if we hadn't have won the race, we would have went to New Hampshire and in my mind we would have won New Hampshire.

"But this makes it a little better going up there now."

Better for everybody in racing.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.