King Richard will never lose, share or forfeit his titleWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Richard Petty was scheduled to lead the first lap July 4 for the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway much as he led the last lap 25 years ago on the same day.
The difference is that this year he was expected to drive a replica of his famous No. 43 STP-sponsored Pontiac for the pace laps, the same car he drove to victory in arguably the biggest race in NASCAR history in 1984.
Petty, 71, was set to pace the field for the start of the 37th Annual Firecracker 400, now called the Coke Zero 400.
He won the same race exactly 25 years ago, his epic 200th career NASCAR victory in front of then-president Ronald Reagan, finishing in bizarre fashion under caution.
Petty and Cale Yarborough, who won the Daytona 500 that same year, were locked in a tight duel for the lead, with Yarborough passing Petty coming out of turn three with three laps remaining, only to have Petty regain the lead exiting turn four. That’s when the yellow flag came out with a car spinning into the infield. Petty and Yarborough raced to the start-finish line, Petty nipping Yarborough by 3 feet. There were still two laps remaining, but on the next lap under yellow, Yarborough thought the race was over and pitted. The yellow remained in effect, and Petty circled once more to take the checkered flag and gain his historic triumph. Harry Gant finished second with Yarborough third.
Dale Earnhardt finished eighth to take over the NASCAR points lead that day.
Petty and Earnhardt were the two most influential drivers and ambassadors in taking NASCAR from the back roads of the South to Wall Street and the forefront of American sports, its popularity second only to the NFL in regard to attendance.
Petty, the “King.” Earnhardt, “The Intimidator.” Two uniquely different personalities, two equally talented drivers, each with a NASCAR-leading seven championships.
But King Richard will never lose his title, share his title nor forfeit his title. That’s because no one will ever come close to his NASCAR Cup victory total. David Pearson is second with 105, followed by Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, each with 84 and Yarborough with 83. Jeff Gordon has 82 wins to lead all active drivers.
There have been others in sports superficially ordained as “Kings,” the latest being NBA star King James, aka LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But among the so-called and sometimes self-proclaimed “Kings,” no one is more imperial than Petty. No one has come close to doing as much to promote his particular sport through athletic success and humanitarian endeavors than King Richard. He will forever be the leading faceplate of NASCAR racing.
Yes, there was less competition when the King ruled, and yes, his sponsorship dollars all but lapped the field. Those not up to speed in regard to recognizing his amazing accomplishments will say that, by today’s standards, the King would probably be middle of the pack.
So what? Doesn’t matter. He was what he was when he had to be. Maybe not as intimidating as an Earnhardt, but basically untouchable. Pearson, Yarborough, the Allison brothers, Waltrip — don’t think those boys couldn’t run, too.
What separated Petty from the field outside the car was his genuine congeniality with the fans, the media and anyone else who wanted to somehow connect if only out of curiosity. The tall magnet of a man in the cowboy hat with the moustache and the wide, warm, persistent down-home smile was iconic just from appearance and still is.
Petty returned to Victory Circle as a car owner when his driver, Kasey Kahne, won the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Sonoma, Calif., last month. Kahne did the now-traditional post-race burnout.
Petty, asked after the race if he ever did anything unusual to celebrate a victory such as a burnout or a backflip, a la Carl Edwards, said, “No, not really. I tell you, I won a couple of races and told the people, excuse me, I’ve got to go to the bathroom. I think that was the most exciting thing that I ever done, but they didn’t do burnouts back then. They didn’t do backflips, you just went to the winner’s circle, got your money and went home. I think winning the race was spectacular enough.”
Evidently not by today’s standards where so much emphasis is placed on the entertainment value.
But that’s of no concern to the always-affable king of kings among sportsmen. What’s of more worry is attempting to be a successful car owner. King Richard explains it in vintage Petty terms.
“Sometimes it gets kind of aggravating, but overall it’s really what I want to do and it’s what I have always done and I always feel like as long as I can do it I want to keep doing it because if I ever pull over to the side of the road, somebody is going to go by me and I don’t like that part,” he said.
No one will ever pass the bona fide King in regard to the things that granted him such a righteous characterization.