CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kyle Petty, the driver-turned-analyst with the unfiltered opinions, has angered someone new.
Petty didn’t mean to make Denny Hamlin mad with his televised comments before Sunday’s race at Pocono. Hamlin, who saw the segment on Speed, tweeted before the race “Kyle Petty is a moron,” and was still venting about Petty after crashing out 14 laps into the race.
Turns out, Hamlin had every right to be upset. Petty admitted to The Associated Press on Monday he had misinterpreted previous statements made by Hamlin, and the opinion Petty presented pre-race about Hamlin was incorrect.
“If you are going to run your mouth, if you are going to dish it out, you gotta take it, and the bone of contention here is that Denny is 100 percent right,” Petty said. “I can take it, I can say that I’m wrong and that I misinterpreted what Denny said.”
Actually, that’s not the bone of contention at all.
The issue at hand is that Petty has found his voice to be the loudest and most polarizing in a sport filled with NASCAR “partners” often too timid to ruffle any feathers. Nobody wants to land on the wrong side of a driver, a crew chief, a team owner or NASCAR itself. And with the hours upon hours of programming to fill, it’s sometimes just easier to stay on good terms.
That’s not who Petty is, and he’ll never play that game.
He found himself in the news – breaking journalism rule No. 1 – last month when he said Danica Patrick was a marketing machine who would never be a successful driver. It’s not the first time he’s referred to NASCAR’s darling as such, and it won’t be the last.
For some reason, it was news – well, who are we kidding? All things Danica are news. But that’s beside the point. Petty was under attack for speaking his opinion.
“Sometimes I find myself the lone dissenting voice in this sea of political correctness, and I don’t think everything has to be politically correct. Facts are facts, and honestly, it’s just my opinion,” he said. “I don’t think that any of us – me, Kyle Petty, media, the drivers, NASCAR, track owners, we aren’t all right all the time. We don’t all live in a utopian society where everything is perfect. There are things that need to be examined, that need to be called out, and I seem to be the only one that says it. That’s the only way I’ve always been.
“It’s just my opinion. It’s just my question. Its questions that have to be asked. Just as it’s their job to go out and drive the race car and do what they do, it’s not our job to ask if they went fishing or went to the Bahamas and just ask the fluff. It’s our responsibility to inform the fan base.”
Petty believes his 53 years of knowledge and hands-on experience gives him the right to express his opinion.
He’s part of NASCAR royalty; the son of seven-time champion Richard Petty and grandson of three-time champion Lee Petty. Both are in the Hall of Fame and his uncle, Maurice Petty, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame next year.
So Kyle Petty was born into a racing family, grew up in the garage area, and gravitated into the business. He worked on cars, raced them, and moved into ownership with Petty Enterprises. His oldest son, Adam, followed him into the business, too, until his 2000 death in an accident at New Hampshire.
Sure, Kyle Petty’s driving record wasn’t spectacular. But 829 Sprint Cup starts over 30 seasons means the guy has seen his fair share of stuff and paid his dues.
And he’s certainly entitled to speak his mind.
He doesn’t think he’s wrong about what he said about Patrick, although he’s willing to let facts change his mind. What he’s found in the world of racing, particularly in this new age of Twitter, is there’s no such thing as a civil discussion.
After his comments about Patrick went mainstream, Petty said he was flooded with 250 tweets an hour for a full day. He went through them all, waiting for a reasonable argument, but only found personal attacks.
“After a full day, it was A. I have a ponytail; B. I’m a never was; C. I suck; D. I rode my dad’s coattails – none of which is a valid argument,” Petty said. “You can change my opinion if you have a valid argument. You can’t just go junior high and go personal.”
Which is why Petty, who does indeed have a ponytail, doesn’t feel badly about his comments about Hamlin on Sunday.
Petty essentially said that Hamlin had gotten too brash in his comments about being the face of Joe Gibbs Racing, and should probably hang it up for the rest of the season and focus on healing his ailing back. What Hamlin had actually said was that he was the face of sponsor Fed-Ex and the No. 11 team.
Hamlin talked about Petty after his accident – because he was asked by a reporter, not because he was dwelling on Petty – and was still miffed.
“My beef with Kyle is he has a lot of opinions about a lot of drivers, but he never once talked to any of them,” Hamlin said. “To be an analyst you’ve got to be in the trenches to find out the stories.”
Petty would have reached out to Hamlin or apologized for making a mistake, but then came the “moron” tweet.
“Denny’s argument was a typical Twitter argument, he calls me a moron and then he goes personal,” Petty said. “So I’m just not going to acknowledge it.”
It’s unlikely it’s the last driver disagreement Petty will have this year. After that, who knows?
Speed flips to Fox Sports 1 later this month, and nobody knows what will happen to the bulk of the NASCAR programming beyond this season. Petty joked Monday “everybody’s dream may come true and I may be watching races on my couch, or from a tiki bar in the Bahamas.”
But that shouldn’t be anybody’s dream. Petty’s opinions may not be popular or politically correct. But they are his; he believes in them and is not afraid to shout them from a trackside television set or inside the Hall of Fame voting room, where he’s influenced many a vote with his impassioned speeches.
Petty isn’t afraid to admit when he’s wrong, but he’s the equivalent of a single car team in a sport full of heavily funded big dogs, and he’s not afraid to make waves.
“I don’t need an interview from Danica or Denny or Brian France,” he said. “But for their sport to survive, they need an interview from us. I was on that side of that table. I needed you to talk to me when I was a driver, because I needed Coca-Cola or Wells Fargo, and if you didn’t talk to me, I didn’t get that job or that cash. I don’t know if people see it that way anymore. If we don’t cover the races, then there’s no sport. If we don’t talk about how great Denny is or Jimmie (Johnson) is or Danica, then there’s no fans.
“You are going to ruffle feathers sometimes, and the texts or phone messages I get, that’s fine. That’s part of life. Because once you start singing the company line, you become white noise and that’s not me.”