Petty Motorsports ready for a fight

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It was difficult to tell this was the "King" of NASCAR walking through the darkness of the Sprint Cup garage Sunday night. An umbrella caused a shadow over much of his tall, lanky frame. Then there was the baseball cap replacing his signature cowboy hat.

And there were no sunglasses.

But the smile gave him away.

It's hard to miss the big-toothed smile of Richard Petty, and after watching three of his cars at newly formed Richard Petty Motorsports finish in the top nine of the Daytona 500, he had every reason to show it off.

Only a few months ago there was nothing to smile about. Petty was on the verge of being out of the business entirely. But the merger of Petty Enterprises and Gillett Evernham Motorsports into Richard Petty Motorsports has given the seven-time champion reason for hope.

"I'm hoping this will settle a lot of stuff down … scuttlebutt and all the crap," Petty said as he posed for a picture with a female fan who forced her way under the umbrella. "By moving in and doing the deal, this will keep everything on an even keel.

"I know it'll all be good."

It was good on Sunday. Very good, under the standards Petty Enterprises and Gillett Evernham Motorsports established the past few years, as AJ Allmendinger came home third, Elliott Sadler fifth and Reed Sorenson ninth in the rain-shortened event won by Matt Kenseth.

Kasey Kahne, who would have to be considered the top driver at RPM, ironically was 29th.

But three top-10s is more than Petty Enterprises had all of last season. GEM or Evernham Motorsports as it was known previously never had more than two in a race.

But it's way too early to call this a success story. Six of the top 10 cars from last year's Daytona didn't make the Chase, including the top two in Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, as well as Sadler (finished sixth) and Kasey Kahne (seventh) from GEM.

Petty knows this. He understands the true test for RPM and every other organization comes the next two weeks at California -- a 2-mile track -- and then D-shaped 1.5-mile Las Vegas, a type of track where almost half the races are run this season.

So as excited as Petty was, he tempered his expectations.

"You don't take nothing away from here that helps you anywhere else," said Petty, who won seven Daytona 500s. "A plated motor, a wide-open deal; you can't tell the handling part. All that stuff is completely different.

"Next week is when the season starts."

That there is a next week for Petty is the real news. A few months ago NASCAR's most storied organization was in shambles, sponsorless and broke to the point one had to wonder if the doors would be locked unless a merger occurred.

Hanging over the despair was a rift that apparently still exists between Petty and his son, Kyle, who was left without a ride even before the merger. Kyle Petty was so bitter that he didn't hang around for Sunday's race and even vowed not to watch it on television.

Allmendinger's future was even grimmer. He turned down a one-year deal to remain at Red Bull Racing to pursue several long-term offers. But the worse the economy became, the more uncertain his opportunities became.

That led to the soap opera in which Sadler learned through a sponsor that GEM planned to replace him with Allmendinger in the No. 19. That turned into the threat of legal action.

GEM finally settled on Sadler in the 19 and Allmendinger in the 44 with a guarantee of only eight races unless further sponsorship could be found.

It truly was a mess.

But they put all that behind them when they came to Daytona. Sadler actually pushed Allmendinger to a top-10 finish in the second 150-mile qualifier that got his teammate into the 500. He and Sorenson also blocked other cars that were trying to knock Allmendinger out.

On Sunday, all the frustration and anxiety of the unknown from the past few months seemed far away. And it could have been an even bigger Cinderella story. Had the rain come a few laps earlier, Sadler, not Kenseth, would have been declared the winner of the biggest race of the year.

"I put my heart and soul to come in here to Daytona to compete at the top of my game, 'cause I knew I had a lot of eyes on me to run good," Sadler said. "It was cool running up front. It was great having Reed and AJ behind me pushing.

"It would have been cool to finish like that, but it just wasn't meant to be. Very hard to swallow. Very emotional. We'll try to get 'em next week."

The eyes weren't just on Sadler. They were on the entire organization with critics wondering if this marriage would work.

"It's a big deal," Allmendinger said. "It was a tough offseason for everybody. There's a lot of stuff that went on throughout the team with the merger. I think it shows how strong the team is now. … Overall, the team's done a lot of work in the offseason. Brand new race cars. Everybody's putting a hundred percent effort into it.

"You can see when you go to the shop and at the racetrack just everybody's attitude … everybody's pumped up to be here and excited."

Nobody is more excited than Petty. He and others at RPM made it clear that he's more than a figurehead with the company primarily owned by George Gillett Jr. He's a sounding board for everybody from management to crew members at the shop, and his presence in the garage can't be missed.

"It's a lot of fun at the racetrack right now," Allmendinger said. "I look forward to going to California and just carrying this on."

That's what the Daytona 500 was all about for Petty -- carrying on. He did what was necessary in the offseason to keep the famous No. 43, as well as the No. 44, on the track. He made sure the Petty name remained a part of the sport by insisting the merged company be called Richard Petty Motorsports.

It doesn't look any more like Petty Enterprises than Petty looked like himself walking through the garage Sunday, but that's OK. Things change and life moves on.

"This is one heck of a way to start the season," Petty said. "This is how we want Richard Petty Motorsports to start. George and I have something good here. This is just the beginning and we're excited for the next couple races.

"Hopefully, this isn't the last time that you see those boys at the front of the pack working together like that."

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