KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When Denny Hamlin called Kyle Petty last year seeking permission to use the No. 45 for his second team at 23XI Racing, Petty couldn’t give an answer.
He had to talk to his children.
The No. 45 had not been used by the family since the end of the 2008 season as a tribute to Adam Petty. That was his number as he moved to Cup and that number rode with Richard Petty’s grandson when he made his lone Cup start in 2000 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Adam Petty died in a crash six weeks later during practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Adam Petty’s sister, Montgomery Lee, then 14, eulogized her brother a few days later through sniffles and tears before 1,500 relatives, friends and some of NASCAR’s most famous competitors.
“Every memory of Adam is a great memory,” she said that day.
Before walking off stage and being escorted to her seat by Richard Petty, Montgomery Lee said: “I love you Adam.”
The sport’s love of Adam kept the No. 45 with the Petty family for the last 20 years.
“NASCAR protected that number,” Kyle Petty told NBC Sports. “Kyle Petty never protected that number. Richard Petty didn’t protect that number. Our family didn’t. The people at NASCAR protected that number because they knew what it meant to our family.”
Hamlin sought the No. 45 for co-owner Michael Jordan. That was Jordan’s number when he returned to the NBA in 1995 after using it when he played minor league baseball. NASCAR, which oversees the use of numbers, told Hamlin he needed to talk to Kyle Petty.
After talking with Hamlin, Kyle Petty called Montgomery Lee and son Austin to relay Hamlin’s request.
“You have to realize that as this came about,” Kyle Petty said, “Adam has been gone longer than he was here. We’ve crossed that threshold. He’s been gone 22 years and he was only here 19 years. … (Montgomery Lee and Austin) had made peace with it. It was easier for me to make peace with it.”
Adam Petty died on May 12. Three days after that anniversary, Kurt Busch was driving the No. 45, chasing Kyle Larson for the lead in the final laps of Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.
“I’m not lying,” Kyle Petty said Sunday night, “when Kurt was running (Larson) down, I’m in Kiawah, South Carolina, and you could have heard me in Kansas City. I was pulling for Kurt Busch. I was screaming. … I probably looked like Tom Cruise on Oprah Winfrey’s couch — when he jumped up and down on her couch.
“I was screaming: ‘Catch him Kurt! Catch him Kurt! Let’s go, man!’”
Busch got closer. He made his move around Larson. They raced side-by-side, Busch nosed ahead as they crossed the start/finish line with nine laps left. Busch quickly completed the pass and pulled away for his first victory of the season and his first with 23XI Racing.
Petty sent Busch a text just after the No. 45 crossed the finish line. Petty was heartened by what he heard when Busch spoke immediately after the race.
“If you go back and watch his post-race interview with (FS1’s) Jamie Little when he got out the car,” Petty said, “he mentions just the number. He mentions it numerous times. … I know in his mind it’s his team, it’s a new team, it’s a team that was built specifically for him. It’s not that 23XI won, it’s that Kurt Busch won with his team. I know that.
“I have to say for me that a little bit of me smiled every time (Busch said the No. 45) because I’m like, ‘that’s right it’s the 45. It should have been there a long time ago under different circumstances but you got it there, man.’”
Later, Busch was asked about the significance of winning in the No. 45 car so close to the anniversary of Adam Petty’s passing.
“I could feel things early on with Kyle and the way that he wanted this 45 car to have success,” Busch said. “It’s a small spiritual connection.”
This moment was just one of the highlights of the past few days for Kyle Petty. Son Austin and his wife Sarah welcomed daughter Ellington Montgomery Petty on May 12, coming 22 years after Adam Petty’s death.
“The darkest day for me has always been May 12,” Petty said. “May 12 is just an incredibly dark day. I get to a dark place a few days before that and stay in a dark place for a few days after that. It’s just a dark day.
“Austin and Sarah having a little girl, that day wasn’t as dark. There was a light. For a change, there was a light in that day. Eventually, that light will be brighter than that day. I’m sure. There’s no doubt in my mind. It’s not there yet, but the light was lit (that day).
“Then to have Kurt and that number in Victory Lane three days later … it’s a week of positive things. It’s a not a week of negative things. It’s a week of light. It’s not a week of darkness.
“It’s a week of hope and not a week of despair. I think when you look at it, in 20 years I’ll look back and say this is the week that changed everything.”