Happy birthday, Richard Petty.
NASCAR’s original seven-time champion and its all-time wins leader turned 80 on Sunday. In honor of Petty’s 80 years on earth, let’s remember eight of the biggest moments in his career.
8. His final start: The last years of Petty’s career weren’t much of a highlight compared to the rest of his accomplishments. Petty went winless in his final eight seasons.
But his final start, at Atlanta in 1992, came in a historic race for NASCAR. Bill Elliott won the race, but lost the championship to owner-driver Alan Kulwicki because Kulwicki finished second. The fight between Kulwicki and Elliott is one of the best championship duels in NASCAR.
The race was also he first race in the career of a guy named Jeff Gordon. You may be familiar with the now-Fox Sports broadcaster. He was a decent driver.
7. Petty’s first win: The King’s 200 wins are the most of anyone in NASCAR’s top level. And it’s a mark that no one is ever going to touch.
But when you count wins in other NASCAR series, Petty’s mark is actually 201. His first NASCAR victory came in the long-defunct NASCAR Convertible Series at Columbia Speedway in 1959. Petty beat a field that included Wood Brothers Racing co-owner Glen Wood and other iconic drivers like Buddy Baker and Tiny Lund.
6. Petty’s streak of top-10 points finishes: Petty finished in the top 10 in the NASCAR points standings for 19 years from 1966-1985. The streak would have been longer too if Petty hadn’t run just 14 races in 1965.
That season Petty tried his hand at drag racing. But he quit the sport not long after he was involved in a wreck that killed a young spectator after his car crashed into a crowd of fans.
In those 14 starts in 1965 Petty had four wins and 10 top-10 finishes. Well on pace to finish in the top 10 that season, his incredible top-10 streak could have been 25 years.
5. Petty’s seventh championship: Petty is now tied with Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson with seven titles. But he was the first driver to get to seven and did so with an epic championship battle with fellow NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip.
Petty didn’t take the points lead until after the 29th race of the 31-race season. And he entered the final race of the year at Ontario in second, two points behind Waltrip.
Petty finished the Ontario race in fifth, three spots ahead of Waltrip. The 13-point gap was enough to shift the points standings into Petty’s favor by 11 and give him the title.
The comeback was made possible by an incredible streak of consistency. Petty was fourth in the points standings after finishing 30th in the 12th race of the season. In the final 19 races of the year he never finished outside the top 10 and had two wins over the final eight races.
4. His role in the 1979 Daytona 500 finish: The 1979 Daytona 500 is perhaps the most iconic NASCAR race because of the fight between Cale Yarborough and Bobby and Donnie Allison after a last-lap crash. But Petty’s involvement in the race is sometimes forgotten.
As Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough battled for the lead on the final lap and slid into the infield, Petty took over the lead from third. It was just the 12th lap he led in the entire race and his first since 1971.
The victory was Petty’s sixth Daytona 500 win. He’d get one more, winning the 1981 Daytona 500.
3. Petty’s battle with David Pearson at the end of the 1976 Daytona 500: While the 1979 500 may be NASCAR’s most iconic race, this race still holds the title of best Daytona 500 finish. And yeah, this is on the list even though Petty didn’t win the race.
Petty snuck ahead of Pearson off turn 4 on the final lap as the two rubbed against each other in the corner. But the two made contact coming off the corner and Pearson hit the wall and Petty got loose.
It appeared for a brief moment that Petty was heading to win the race. But he too couldn’t save his car and also hit the wall. As Pearson’s car spun into the entrance of pit road, Petty’s car spun to a stop just short of the finish line.
As Petty struggled to get his car refired, Pearson’s car was still running. He cut across the infield and around Petty to take the checkered flag.
2. His final win: Petty’s 200th and final Cup Series win came in the 1984 Firecracker 400. With the race run in its traditional July 4 morning spot, then-President Ronald Reagan was in attendance for the final laps. Petty got to celebrate with Reagan after the race after leading the final 33 laps.
1. His second title: Petty won his first championship in 1964 with nine wins over 68 races. His second came in even more dominating fashion. Petty won 27 races in 48 starts in 1967 and had 40 top-10 finishes. Bobby Allison, the series’ second-winningest driver that season, had six.
NASCAR’s points system was far different back then. Petty accumulated over 42,000 points in those 48 races. And he even skipped a race. And, as you can imagine, the title race wasn’t even close. Petty beat second-place James Hylton by over 6,000 points.
It’s the most dominating season in NASCAR history. And much like his 200-win mark, it’s something that will never be topped in modern NASCAR. With the Cup Series’ current 36-race schedule, an equivalent season would be a driver winning 19 races in a season. Not even Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are good enough to do that.
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