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The flowing locks have been clipped somewhat and the earring is gone. The Rolls is in the shop. But NASCAR's answer to Ric Flair is doing just fine.

At 30 years old, Kyle Petty has become racing's most marketable commodity. He's hot.It's all new to Petty, a prodigy out of stock car racing's most famous family. Just one year ago, he was a one-man thrill-seeker's show on the race track, going through more sheet metal in 1989 than a heating and air conditioning company.

That's all changed now. Running among the leaders every week, staying in the points race and in the public eye, Petty's face is as recognizable as any on the tour.

``Six years ago, nobody knew who I was,' Petty said Saturday morning. ``All of a sudden, I'm in every paper in the country.'

Petty's rise to stardom came rather suddenly, and he's not really sure what happened. All he knows is that at Watkins Glen three weeks ago, everybody from Time Magazine to the New York Times wanted to talk to him. Next week, he'll be in board meetings with Coca-Cola and Nintendo executives.

Petty's sudden popularity comes at the right time, considering he has no sponsor for his Winston Cup team for 1991. Peak Antifreeze, whose colors Petty has worn since last season, announced midway through the season that it will pull out of racing after the 1990 schedule ends. That forced Petty and car owner Felix Sabates to go shopping much earlier than teams are used to.

Most considered it bad timing. But no one expected Petty to become so popular so fast.

``It was good timing,' Petty said. ``It gave us a lot of time to work. It takes months to find a sponsor, but it takes a good six months to hook one.'

There are two fish on Petty's hook right now, either of which will make his one of the best-backed teams on the circuit.

``We've gotten it down to Mello Yello and Nintendo,' he said. ``We should know something in a week to 10 days. There probably won't be any announcement until Charlotte, though.'

Both are intriguing sponsors. Mello Yello, a Coca-Cola product, would not hurt Petty's image one bit. The soft drink company has been considering getting back into racing for several years but has been waiting for the right time and the right driver. It may have found both in Petty, whose name and face is already in countless television commercials and magazine ads.

Nintendo is even more interesting. Its marketing directors have just initiated a new ploy designed to attract male consumers in the lucrative 18-to-49 market. It seems that Nintendo's newest craze, a hand-held video game called Game Boy, has caught on with dads tired of watching their kids hog the television.

A Wall Street Journal story this week quoted Nintendo marketing experts as saying that more than 40 percent of Game Boy purchases are by adults 18 and older. That is also the strongest age market in Winston Cup racing.

``That appeals to them,' Petty said. ``They're thinking that racing would be a good deal to get in right now.'

``Everything that speaks to the consumer - the advertising, our packaging - must convey a 'leading-edge' kind of attitude,' Nintendo advertising manager Donald Conyer told the Journal.

And that's where Petty comes in. In a sport that, in recent years, has tried to smooth the edges of its carefully manicured image, Petty is on the fringe. He's outgoing, sharp in an interview and engaging in conversation. He's not afraid to speak his mind. In a word, he is marketable.

That he hasn't already landed one of the deals has raised some eyebrows in recent weeks. And though there seem to be no clouds on the horizon, there might be cause for concern. Petty was involved in a hard crash last week at Bristol and has not fully recovered. He skipped Saturday's Grand National race and will have Jimmy Hensley standing close by today in case he needs relief.

Doctors have told Petty that his brain is slightly bruised from the jolt at Bristol, and he is experiencing headaches and drowsiness as a result. He will be watched closely.

These days, that's nothing new. Petty has become one of the most closely watched personalities in the sport. His time has come.

Petty's dad, Richard, predicted last year that Kyle would break into the inner circle this year.

``He's 30 years old,' Richard said. ``You look at all the great drivers, and they really come into their own around 30. Kyle's in that group now.'

Kyle Petty is also in the middle of the strongest marketing age group. Whether he becomes Mello Yello's boy or Nintendo's new Game Boy, Petty is sure to remain on the cutting edge.

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