BRISTOL — Richard Petty is about to give up his title.
The seven-time NASCAR champion is still “The King of Stock Car Racing,” but his status as the last driver to win a Cup Series race on dirt will come to an end with the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 28.
He addressed the subject during a Friday press conference at BMS, which announced that Tide will sponsor the No. 43 Chevrolet driven by Erik Jones at the dirt race.
“When I heard they were making a dirt track out of this, it teed me off because I was the last winner on a dirt track,” Petty joked. “Now, they’re taking that from me. From a PR standpoint, it’s good to do something different. It’s going to be very interesting since some of these guys haven’t run dirt and we don’t have dirt-track cars.”
Thirty of Petty’s record 200 Cup Series wins came on dirt tracks. Asked about his toughest rival on the dirt surface, he named David Pearson, the same driver who ranks second to him on NASCAR’s all-time win list and the driver he’s often quoted as saying the best he raced against.
Petty said he learned how to race on dirt by watching drivers like Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner and his father Lee. As for the Bristol track with its 19-degree banking, it’s much different than the dirt tracks on which Petty raced.
“We never ran a banked dirt track when I was racing,” Petty said. “They were banked just enough for the water to run off. We could have had a good time on something like this.”
Petty recalled the last Cup Series race on dirt. It was the Home State 200 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, where he led 112 of the 200 laps and won by a two-lap margin over runner-up Neil Castles.
“It was a rough track, never smooth like this track,” Petty said. “It was a dirt track where they also raced horses and stuff. There were holes big enough to bury a car. You were lucky to get around the holes. The dirt tracks now are so much different where they know how to use the calcium and all the different compounds.”
Jones talked about driving the Tide car, carrying on a tradition of drivers like Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd and Ricky Craven. He also mentioned what it meant to drive the iconic No. 43 that Petty made famous.
“Obviously being in the No. 43 car is a big honor for me,” Jones said. “I grew up a fan of the history of the sport and I know what that number means to NASCAR. To have my opportunity to write my own chapter in it is pretty important.”
As for racing on the converted Bristol track, he looks to his last time in a similar type vehicle on the dirt surface.
“I really don’t know what to expect. I’ve done some dirt racing, but the last time I’ve run one of these kinds of cars were the trucks at Eldora,” Jones said. “I will pull from that experience, where we struggled and felt we could do better. The fortunate part the crew chief Jerry (Baxter) was crew chief for the trucks there.”
While drivers who have raced open-wheeled sprint cars on dirt have been listed as pre-race favorites, neither Petty nor Jones believes that’s necessarily the case. Petty looks for the track to become slick like a similarly slick asphalt surface, something that Jones agrees with.
“I think you can set your expectations pretty high for this race,” Jones said. “It should be a level playing field. Nobody knows 100 percent what to expect. Even if you look at the dirt racers in the field like Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., I don’t know if they have any advantage over us because it’s so unique and different.
“They’re not dirt cars but the same cars we drive on pavement, so the style of racing they’re used to isn’t like what we’re doing here.”
FUNDS RAISED FOR PVA
There was also an announcement of Petty’s partnership with Food City raising more than $2.3 million for the Paralyzed Veterans of America. More than $500,000 was raised over the last year.