Pay your respects to Petty Enterprises

LEVEL CROSS, N.C. -- Petty Enterprises is better off now, past its suffering of the past few dismal decades.

It is in a better place -- the memories of those who knew it in all its glory, unequaled in NASCAR to this day, with 268 wins and 10 championships.

Petty Enterprises ceased to exist last week when, no longer financially viable, it was merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

But all of that was aftermath that occurred 70 miles away from here in Mooresville, N.C., where Petty Enterprises had been moved a year ago in a desperate struggle to save it.

Petty Enterprises lived and thrived and faded and struggled and died here, half a mile from the truly level crossroads of the hamlet of Level Cross, in a compound of low, white-painted buildings.

This is where I have come to pay my respects, for this is where it all happened, all that ever mattered to the Pettys, good and bad and tragic.

The compound lies forlorn except for a handful of employees who wonder what will come next. This is not even a Petty museum. A new one sits a few miles down the road in the town of Randleman.

Richard Petty is tied up in meetings down in Mooresville and won't be back here until next week, I'm told.

Just as well. I'd hate to hear him try to put a positive spin on what has to be a broken heart.

The dynasty began in 1949 under a shade tree beside Lee Petty's house, which still stands, the front yard so enormous that in the heyday of the team, the 1970s, you could see the patriarch hitting 9-iron shots out there.

People would approach him with pictures of him in his old dirt-track cars in the '50s, the decade of his three championships, and say those were the days. He would chew on the stem of his pipe and say, "I don't know. I like things just the way they are now."

At that point, Lee's eldest son, Richard, was at the pinnacle of NASCAR, winning at least 10 races most years on the way to winning 200 races and seven championships, both records.

What was more, Richard was the Arnold Palmer of his sport. With his easygoing charisma and his untiring patience with the media and fans, Richard almost single-handedly was lifting NASCAR out of the boondocks onto national television.

But Richard, when his prime was past, would never get to say he liked things "just the way they are." It never was that good again, let alone better.

Really, after 1981, the year of Richard's record seventh and last Daytona 500 win, all was ebb.

Even in 1984, he won his final victory while driving for another team because Petty Enterprises wasn't strong enough to support more than one driver. That driver was Richard's son, Kyle, who never made it big.

By the mid-1980s, Richard Petty admitted to me as we stood in the garage area at Daytona that Petty Enterprises was woefully behind the other NASCAR teams. He said catching up would be a struggle.

This was soon after the advent of high technology and professional engineering to NASCAR.

"We said, 'Well, we've been doing it our way for 25 years, so we don't believe we'll change,'" he admitted then.

Petty Enterprises, long the leader by far, was suddenly wondering where its competition went -- mainly new teams such as Hendrick Motorsports.

Richard's number, 43, once the most electrifying in all of NASCAR as it flashed past the grandstands, had faded into just another number, one that held no magnetism for younger drivers.

Struggling to bring the magic back to 43, Richard returned to Petty Enterprises, but he never won again. His final eight years in NASCAR were painful to watch, and you felt relieved for him when he retired in 1992.

There was one great upturn in the chronic illness of Petty Enterprises. Bright hope for revival dawned at the end of this past millennium as fourth-generation Adam Petty, Kyle's eldest son, came of age.

We all joked and wrote that maybe the Petty genes had skipped a generation, over Kyle, straight from Richard to Adam.

"My son," Kyle said, "can be what my father was."

The King and Adam walked and talked alike. They were lanky and easygoing. And they were closer than Richard and Kyle had been. Richard saw Adam as "really, really focused," he'd said joyously, whereas Kyle had been free-spirited, as fond of motorcycles and guitars as of racing.

Kyle, gazing out his mother's kitchen window one day as his father and son walked and talked together on the lawn, remarked to her, "Richard Petty's finally got the son he never had."

Superstardom surely seemed imminent. Corporate chieftains figuratively lined up outside this old compound to bid on Adam's future. I would have estimated just days before the tragedy that commitments were approaching $100 million for the new millennium's new star.

So if you ask me the specific day Petty Enterprises died, it was not at some negotiating table in Mooresville last week. Petty Enterprises died on May 12, 2000, with Adam Petty, 19, against a concrete wall at a racetrack in Loudon, N.H.

After that, Petty Enterprises was a pitiful zombie of itself.

And so, better that it's gone now. Finished. Laid to rest.

Word is the merged companies will emerge as Richard Petty Motorsports -- and surely that will be shortened to the generic-sounding RPM.

If Richard is hereafter a figurehead, good for him. He deserves to walk this earth as solely an icon for a while. He shouldn't have had to bear the business burdens and worries he has had since his own prime as a driver.

For nearly a quarter century, Petty Enterprises hadn't been able to keep up with the corporate trends of NASCAR, and it was sad to watch the grand old team even try.

It hadn't won a race since 1999, and that was a delightful aberration with John Andretti at the wheel. The last win before that was with Bobby Hamilton in 1997, and that was an aberration, too.

Then, to see Petty Enterprises' hopes raised sky-high, and then dashed so tragically at the turn of this century, was beyond gut-wrenching.

Petty Enterprises is gone. Sigh relief. Let it rest.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.