Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2013 12:58 pm | Updated: 10:13 am, Fri Apr 26, 2013.
Richard Petty won a whopping 200 NASCAR races, but didn’t win his first race at Hickory Speedway. Or his second. Or his 14th.
Petty wound up running 22 NASCAR races — it was called the Grand National Series then — at Hickory from 1960 to 1971, and he got his first win there in his 16th try.
That first win came in late 1965, the year Ned Jarrett got his second NASCAR title. Petty started fifth in the Buddy Shuman 250 and topped a 26-car field. It was a hall-of-fame group up front, led by Petty, David Pearson, Jarrett and Junior Johnson.
Petty won twice at Hickory in 1967, his 27-win season. He started first and second, respectively. His other Hickory wins came in 1968 and 1971 (the last year Cup cars ran at HMS).
He dominated his last few years at HMS, winning five of his last seven tries there, including four in a row from 1965-1968.
Petty had three poles at Hickory, in 1966, 1967 and 1968. He finished second, first and fourth in those races.
He didn’t make history at Hickory, but Petty’s always had a sense of history.
“My family, the Pettys, we are NASCAR history. I’m NASCAR history whether I want to be or not,” he once said at a press conference at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. “They talk about all the changes in the sport over the years and this and that, but, man, I was there.”
Petty didn’t race in the first NASCAR Strictly Stock race at Charlotte in 1949, but his father, Lee, did and Richard was there. Lee drove the family car, a 1948 four-door Buick Roadmaster, from Level Cross to Charlotte. With family members riding along, Lee found a Texaco station, put the car on the rack, changed the oil, greased it and checked the air pressure.
Then he headed to Charlotte Speedway.
In mid-race, Lee broke a swaybar, busted a tire and rolled the Roadmaster. The family hitchhiked home and later went back and got the Buick.
Most of Lee Petty’s career was more successful. He won the inaugural Daytona 500, in 1959, in dramatic fashion. He edged Johnny Beauchamp in a photo finish — they didn’t even announce the winner until days later. That started his legend in stock-car racing.
But Lee’s greatest accomplishment didn’t include his 54 wins or his three NASCAR titles (1954, 1958 and 1959). It was Richard.
Richard got his first eight career starts in 1958, was NASCAR’s first rookie of the year in 1959 and got his first victory in 1960. He won nine races, and his first Grand National (now Sprint Cup) championship in 1964.
In 1967, Petty won an astounding 10 straight races and 27 overall, and someone dubbed Petty "King Richard," or just "The King."
When Richard got his 54th win, in 1967, he and Lee were NASCAR’s two winningest drivers. His 27 victories in 1967 were exactly half as many as his father had in a 16-year NASCAR career.
Richard Petty’s records are many:
• He won 200 NASCAR races and has 95 more wins than second-place David Pearson. He has the most top-five finishes (555) and the most top-10s (712).
• He had Cup records for wins from the pole (61), superspeedway wins (55), short-track wins (139), poles (126), second-place finishes (158) and years leading the circuit in victories (seven).
• He started 1,185 races in NASCAR's top division. Ricky Rudd was second with 906 starts.
• Petty won seven Daytona 500s, three more than second-place Cale Yarborough, and he won a record seven NASCAR championships, tied in 1994 by Dale Earnhardt.
• Petty’s career winnings of $7,755,409 were a runaway record until the big-money era of Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and others.
Lee Petty was a pioneer of stock-car racing, but Richard Petty was the sport’s Babe Ruth. And, whereas Earnhardt would take the sport to another level during the TV era, Petty got it rolling.
Thousands flocked to see Petty. And whether he won or lost, he usually sported the famous Petty grin, and he signed autographs by the bushel.
People loved his straight-forward, country manner, the smile, the sideburns. When he finally adopted the Petty look — the mustache, the cowboy hat and boots, the sunglasses — he turned into an American icon.
When Earnhardt tied Petty’s seven titles in 1994, he seemed stunned. He had tied Richard Petty!
“I’m proud and honored to be in the same group with him,” Earnhardt said then. “But he got us here and will always be The King. Nothing will ever take that away from him.”
But Petty, sadly, wasn’t The King at Hickory. Buck Baker had more starts (24), and Junior Johnson had more wins (seven).
Oh, well. Can’t have everything.
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