by Paul Newberry
TALLADEGA, Ala. - Andy Petree knows his way around victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway, so no one had to tell him where to go when his driver won the race.
Then again, this was a rather new experience.
Petree wasn?t celebrating a NASCAR Winston Cup triumph. Instead, he was toasting victory in the minor-league ARCA series, where he?s trying to rebuild his downsized team with a talented young driver in tow.
?I want to do it the right way this time,? Petree said.
On the track, at least, he knows how to do it the right way.
Petree won two Winston Cup championships as Dale Earnhardt?s crew chief and founded his own team in late 1996. Even though he had to get by on a shoestring budget, his cars still managed to win two races and start from the pole six times.
?We were the poster children for doing the most with the least,? Petree said.
His first victory as a car owner came at the 2001 Talladega 500 with Bobby Hamilton. Later that year, Petree?s other driver, Joe Nemechek, won at Rockingham.
The money began to dry up in 2002, forcing Petree to abandon one of his cars. By the time this season rolled around, a lack of dollars forced Petree to give up his Winston Cup dreams ? at least for now.
?When the economy took a turn, we were one of the first ones affected,? Petree said. ?This thing can really beat you down. I was beat down last year, that?s for sure.?
But he?s already plotting his comeback. Petree signed Paul Menard, a promising young driver with a strong racing heritage ? his father is Indy-car owner John Menard.
Petree set up a diverse, 18-race schedule to hasten his new driver?s learning curve, including ARCA, NASCAR?s Busch series, some truck events and even a Winston Cup road race at Watkins Glen.
?It?s been difficult the last few years, but this is actually a great year for me personally,? Petree said. ?I?m working with a much smaller group, and I?ve got a great young driver. It?s a lot more fun.?
Last weekend, the Petree-Menard team won for the first time, capturing the ARCA race at Talladega. Their car had to start from the back of the field after failing to pass inspection during qualifying, but Menard worked his way through the field and took the checkered flag in the first superspeedway race of his career.
The plan is to move up to the Busch series full-time in 2004, run that for a couple of years, then move into the rough-and-tumble world of Winston Cup (actually Nextel Cup, the series? name beginning next season).
?From what I?ve seen of Paul, that should be enough experience,? Petree said. ?This was the first time he?s ever been on a track like this, and he was out there doing Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jr. stuff. I?m really proud of him.?
If Petree gets back to the big time, he?ll change a few things.
First and foremost, there?s got to be enough financial support to compete with the top teams. He?s tired of getting by on less.
?Before, we were always losing our best guys to the other teams because we couldn?t pay them enough,? Petree said. ?It was frustrating. We would find them, train them, then they were worth more than we could pay them.?
The 23-year-old Menard has an earring in his left lobe, a soul patch under his bottom lip and a cool demeanor that serves him well at speeds approaching 200 mph.
He realizes the value of having a mentor such as Petree.
?Andy has so much experience,? Menard said. ?It just makes sense that we work together. I grew up watching both Indy cars and NASCAR, so I knew who he was. I?ve already learned so much from him.?