Sunday, March 14, 2004

Inman gives Petty team nudge in right direction

Auto racing

The Associated Press

HAMPTON, Ga. - With the team he helped build struggling, Richard Petty went to a longtime employee - and family member - for help. Cousin Dale Inman answered the call.

Last fall, with Petty Enterprises mired in one of its worst seasons ever, Inman rejoined the team in an advisory role. He didn't bring any technological know-how or mechanical wizardry, but he made a difference all the same.

"He's got a talent of getting people to work together, all going in the same direction," Petty said Saturday. "And everybody here knows what he's done and respects that, so they listen to him.

"Now, they might not always do what he says, but he has them at least questioning what they're doing."

The results have improved steadily. At Las Vegas last week, Kyle Petty, Richard's son who now runs the team, finished 12th, his best showing in nearly a year. Teammate Jeff Green, who drives the famed No. 43 Dodge, ran near the front most of the day until he got caught in an accident that wasn't his fault.

This weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Green qualified 18th and Kyle Petty will start 27th in today's Golden Corral 500. That's far from spectacular, but as far down as the team was last year, Petty takes what he can get.

"Anybody that struggled as much as we have needs days like Vegas; we need all the good days we can have," he said. "We're not going to get all the way back to the top in a few days or a few races. It'll take some time."

Inman, who was the crew chief for Richard Petty during 193 of his 200 wins and all seven of his championships, had been retired for nearly five years. When asked to come back, he was helping Kyle Petty with the Victory Junction Gang Camp, which is scheduled to open this summer to provide recreation to children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses.

"Richard called and asked if I would come help him out," Inman said. "I wasn't sure what I could do for him, but I told him I would. I've got most of my lifetime invested in Petty Enterprises, so I wanted to help if I could."

Most of Inman's time is spent with crew chiefs Gary Putnam and Greg Steadman. He rarely offers advice on making the cars go faster - "Gosh, this sport has changed so much," Inman said - but asks a lot of questions.

And his presence helps boost morale for both teams.

"I compare it to Joe Gibbs going back to the Washington Redskins," Kyle Petty said. "They're having the best winter they've ever had, even though they're not playing any games. That's what Dale does for us. He's got everybody excited."

Inman started his career with the team helping prepare cars for Lee Petty, Richard's father. Petty Enterprises has 268 victories and won for the first time in 1949, NASCAR's inaugural season.

But Inman has been successful elsewhere. He left the team in 1981, shortly after Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 for the seventh time, and he resurfaced with driver Terry Labonte. In 1984, Inman led Labonte to his first Cup title before rejoining the Pettys in 1987.

Now, he's back again.

"I've been around Kyle his whole life, so I'm pretty proud of everything he's accomplished," Inman said. "If I can help him get this thing back going, that'd be pretty special."

TRUCK SERIES: Bobby Hamilton passed Mike Skinner in the final turn, then held on when they bumped coming to the finish line to win the inaugural EasyCare 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Skinner ended up sliding sideways across the line but still finished second in front of rookie David Reutimann.

Defending series champ Travis Kvapil was fourth, followed by Matt Crafton.

"I tried to get our wheels together, so maybe I'd nudge ahead a little bit," Skinner said. "I guess it just didn't work out."

Hamilton, a former Winston Cup driver, rallied from a lap down to get his fifth career victory in the series and the 50th for Dodge.

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