DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Elliott Sadler finished fifth in the Daytona 500, his best showing in over six months with a payday of more than $515,000.
And he was devastated.
Sadler had raced his way to the front of the field in Sunday's season-opener right when the weather radar showed rain on top of Daytona International Speedway. Only the sky had yet to open up, forcing Sadler to fight to hang onto the lead as the entire field raced Mother Nature.
He couldn't do it, losing the lead to Matt Kenseth a half-lap before the race's final caution. It began to rain minutes after the pass, and Kenseth was declared the winner when NASCAR called it some 20 minutes later.
"If you'd have told me at the beginning of the day I would take a fifth-place finish and lead some laps for the Daytona 500, I probably would have took it," he said quietly afterward. "But to be a half a lap short from being the champion of the Daytona 500 is very emotional to me."
It was a heartbreaking end to the race, but an encouraging start for Richard Petty and what has become his new race team.
An offseason merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsports created the new Richard Petty Motorsports, and the Daytona 500 marked a wonderful start to the partnership. Sadler had a chance to win, AJ Allmendinger was a career-best third and Reed Sorenson was ninth to put three of RPM's drivers in the top 10.
Kahne, the star of the organization, was the only driver to have a bad day, finishing 29th.
But it was the best showing in years for a team with the Petty name. A Petty-owned race car hasn't been to Victory Lane since 1999, and the team was on the verge of collapse before the Gillett merger.
"It's a whole new world the last six months," Petty said this week. "We were looking for something for Petty Enterprises. We really weren't doing what we needed to be doing, and we looked at GEM and talked to them. They were looking to expand, so we said let's just put the two teams together. And so far, it's been pretty good.
"Right out of the box to be able to do as good as we did at Daytona and get all the people to work together, we're really satisfied with the results so far."
It had to be a soothing start to the season after a winter of turmoil for Petty, NASCAR's winningest driver.
A summer sale to private equity firm Boston Ventures failed to put Petty Enterprises on the solid footing to ensure the team, which has been in NASCAR since 1949, could survive the current economic crisis.
Bobby Labonte asked to be released from his contract, longtime sponsor General Mills left the team, and season-ending layoffs were unavoidable.
A merger with Gillett came together in early January, but it wasn't without hiccups.
GEM officials wanted in late December to dump Sadler in favor of Allmendinger, and Sadler gave notice of intent to file an injunction to stop his release. And there was no room in the new company for Kyle Petty, who had run Petty Enterprises for a period and drove for the organization from 1997 through 2008.
The team found a way to keep Sadler and Allmendinger, letting Sadler keep his ride while Allmendinger got an eight-race deal that could expand depending on sponsorship.
There was no solution, though, for Kyle Petty, who briefly visited Daytona the day before the 500 and said he was "crushed" by RPM's decision to use a retro paint scheme on Allmendinger's car. The look matched the car Kyle Petty drove in a 1979 ARCA race at Daytona that was his first career victory.
Petty said busy schedules have prevented him from seeing his son since Christmas, but he understood Kyle Petty's emotions.
"When we did our deal with Boston Ventures, we never had a place for Kyle at Petty Enterprises. He sort of got out of the loop," Richard Petty said. "He talked to his mother. He was really crushed that we didn't include him in (the paint scheme), and I can understand that. We were so busy trying to get our end of the deal done and make it work with a new team that it fell through the crack, and I'm sorry that it did."
Hard feelings aside, Petty is focused on moving on to this weekend's race in California and another strong showing for the new organization.
Sadler knows all eyes are on him as he must show the team made the right decision in keeping him in his ride: "This season I am out to prove that I'm a damn good race car driver who can compete with the best of them," he said.
Sorenson's under pressure to return the No. 43, which Petty piloted to a NASCAR-record 200 career wins, back to Victory Lane. Kahne, meanwhile, needs to get back into the Chase for the championship after a two-year absence.
And Allmendinger is in a race against time to convince a sponsor to sign on for the rest of the season.
"We feel like if he can continue to show promise and do as well as he did at Daytona, then we feel very confident that we'll be able to pick up different sponsors over a period of time to continue running him," Petty said. "If he keeps running like he did at Daytona, I'll just run him out of my pocket because he'll be bringing the money back in."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)