Twenty years after he retired as a race car driver, Richard Petty remains one of the big icons of the South.
Fans lined up for two hours straight on Thursday at Food City in Gray to get autographs from and pose for pictures with “The King of Stock Car Racing.”
Petty, the winningest driver in NASCAR history, was happy to fill their requests. He was making an appearance for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, one of the many charities he is associated with.
“We’ve been working with Food City a lot and they’ve done a super job getting the word out about the paralyzed veterans,” Petty said. “It’s great to come back and say thank you to them and to all the fans who make all of this possible.”
At 75, Petty doesn’t get into the argument of whether he’s the greatest driver of all time. In recent years, some analysts have placed Petty behind either Dale Earnhardt or David Pearson for that title.
Yet, the statistics show neither driver comes close to matching Petty’s numbers on the track.
Earnhardt tied the record of seven Cup Series championships and Pearson has a better winning percentage in races entered. However, the overall picture shows Petty with numbers of 200 career wins, seven Daytona 500 victories, 123 career poles and 157 runner-up finishes.
His win total nearly doubles Pearson’s 105 and far outweigh Earnhardt’s 76 victories.
“You can’t compare apples and oranges,” Petty said. “What you compare is when Lee Petty came along, look at the people he raced against. You compare the people Richard Petty ran against, Earnhardt ran against or Jimmie Johnson ran against. But, you can’t take Jimmie Johnson and take him back and put him against Lee Petty or Richard Petty. It just doesn’t work that way. We did our thing in our time against the people we were running against, and it worked for us.”
The most impressive trait for Petty may be his passion for the sport. Two decades after he retired as a driver, Petty remains an active participant as a car owner.
The wins have been few and far between in recent years as Petty has bounced from different business partnerships to stay an intregal part of the sport.
Currently affiliated with Roush-Fenway Racing and operating out of a shop on the Roush campus in Concord, NC, Richard Petty Motorsports won earlier this season at Watkins Glen with driver Marcos Ambrose.
“Any win, it doesn’t matter short track, big track or road course, it makes the crew feel they’ve got the ability and the driver feel he has the ability to win races,” Petty said. “We just have to get them better on these round tracks.”
The team has shown progress this season with Ambrose winning two poles in the No. 9 Ford and Aric Almirola winning the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 in the famed No. 43.
This past Sunday at Kansas, Almirola had his strongest run to date, leading 69 laps before crashing due to a blown right front tire.
“Aric had the best car, basically,” Petty said. “He could pass anybody at any time. He made up his time and the whole deal, but things weren’t on his side. It wasn’t meant to be.”
Much of the credit for the strong runs goes to crew chiefs Mike Ford and Todd Parrott, recognized as two of the best in the business.
“This year has been frustrating to them,” Petty said. “They can’t get everything to fall into place. Parrott had everything working on the 43 car Sunday, but it wasn’t meant to be. I told them you have to have some misses before you start hitting. I’ve been there and done that.”
When it was announced earlier this season, Penske Racing was leaving Dodge, many expected Petty to reunite with the car brand for which he is most famous. However, he said the decision to stay with Ford and Roush.
“Really, Dodge was confused,” Petty said. “The whole deal with Penske caught them off-guard. They weren’t prepared. They thought they had him lined up for 2013 and all of a sudden, they don’t have him. They had to regroup themselves. Hopefully, they can regroup in 2013 and look at coming back in 2014.”