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'King' Richard ruled NASCAR

Classic Daytona 500

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Credit the crew for Petty's 1981 Daytona 500 win
By Steve Waid
Special to ESPN Classic

When it comes to the Daytona 500, the premier race on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, only one driver has mastered it -- Richard Petty.

Petty, now retired, is considered by many to be the greatest driver in NASCAR history. Of course fans can argue about that,
Richard Petty
Richard Petty won his record seventh (and final) Daytona 500 in 1981.
but it should be pointed out that no competitor has won more races (200), more Winston Cup championships (seven), more races in a single season (27 in 1967), more consecutive races (10, also in 1967) or more Daytona 500s (seven) than Petty.

Those are just a few of the career records he has set.

The Daytona 500 has been a showcase for Petty. He first won it in 1964 and again in 1966. He followed that with wins in 1971, 1973, 1974, 1979 and 1981. Had his luck been slightly better in other years, he would have won more.

Petty's most unusual Daytona 500 victory came in 1979. In that now legendary race, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough were battling for the lead going down the backstretch of the 2.5-mile Daytona trioval. Beating and banging, the two ended up crashing nose-first into the third-turn wall and then slid into the infield.

Petty, running third at the time of the incident, inherited the lead and went on to nip Darrell Waltrip at the finish line.

As dramatic as the victory was, Petty's win in 1981 was equally dramatic.

A strategic pit stop with just 25 laps to go propelled Petty from fifth place into the lead he would not give up.

But that is just part of the story.

Controversy surrounded the 1981 Daytona 500. Prior to the start of the season, NASCAR mandated that all teams would use "downsized" cars; cars with wheelbases of 110 inches. This followed Detroit's trend toward smaller passenger cars, which were quickly replacing the gas-guzzling brutes.

This was a significant change for the competitors. It meant they would be driving cars with unknown qualities. It would require adaptations in aerodynamics, chassis setups and handling characteristics.

Sure enough, pre-season testing at Daytona brought consternation.

Drivers complained that while the smaller cars were fast, they did not handle well. Many said they were extremely loose when running in the high-speed draft that is a huge part of competition in the Daytona 500. "Loose" in the draft means jitters in the drivers.

Petty, whose Petty Enterprises team had been mostly loyal to Chrsyler until 1978, when it switched to Chevrolet, made an attempt to return to his old haunts. He tested a Dodge Mirada at Daytona. Fans were so enthusiastic about his possible return to Chrysler that 15,000 of them turned out to watch his test.

But the car was slow, about eight miles per hour slower than its counterparts. Petty had no choice but to try something else. He switched to Buick -- and it would be the car he would race in the Daytona 500.

During testing, some skullduggery was going on. Bobby Allison, then driving for team owner Harry Ranier, did most of his shakedown runs in Talladega, Ala., home of Alabama International Motor Speedway -- Daytona's sister track.

Allison kept his tests under wraps because he and the Ranier team had discovered the aerodynamic superiority of the Pontiac LeMans, with its long, sloping rear window design.

Sure enough, when Allison showed up at Daytona, he was far quicker than anyone else. His rivals howled foul, but NASCAR said Allison's car was legal. He had just outfoxed everyone else.

Allison won the Daytona 500 pole and followed that up with a victory in a 125-Mile Qualifying Race. He was the heavy favorite to win the Daytona 500.

"Right now, it's the world against Bobby Allison," said veteran driver Buddy Baker.

Forty-two cars started the Daytona 500 on Feb. 15, 1981. Petty and his Buick were nestled in the eighth starting position. As expected, Allison took off. He would lead 117 of the race's 200 laps.

But he would not lead the last one. As the race wound down, he was at the point of a pack of cars that included Baker and 1980 Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.

On lap 173, Allison pitted under the green flag for two tires and fuel. His stop lasted 17.4 seconds. Baker came in right behind Allison and got the same service in 15.3 seconds. Then came Earnhardt, whose stop for tires and gas lasted 15.2 seconds.

Everyone expected Petty to adopt the same strategy. They were fooled.

Petty dashed down pit road and stopped for just 7.8 seconds for fuel only. The move so surprised television pit reporter Ned Jarrett that he could hardly talk into his microphone.

The speedy stop lurched Petty into the lead by a whopping 10.7 seconds. Allison led a furious charge, but with Baker and Earnhardt in tow behind him, his speed suffered.

Petty went on to win by 3.5 seconds over Allison. Ricky Rudd slipped into third place, with Baker fourth and Earnhardt fifth.

Many observers were baffled that Petty could have driven so far -- the final 162.5 miles -- on the same set of tires. Why, they asked, did his team put him at risk with that final, fuel-only pit stop?

It was no risk, Petty said.

"Dale Inman (Petty's crew chief) told me about halfway through the race that the tires weren't wearing," Petty said. "So that last stop wasn't a gamble at all. When I came in for that last stop, Dale just told me not to get too close to the wall because they were only gonna put in one can of gas.

"That one can of gas was enough to get to the checkered flag and that was all I cared about."

Goodyear engineers discovered that even with so many miles on one set of tires, Petty still had more than 50 percent of tread in his right-rear tire, the one that receives most punishment. Inman's assessment of a lack of tire wear was on the mark.

Petty admitted that his seventh Daytona 500 victory, and the 193rd win of his career, wasn't his most emotional. Certainly it did not reach the emotional level of the 1979 win. But for others, it was quite different. That was obvious by the swarm of people who rode Petty's Buick -- atop the hood and trunk -- while he drove it into victory lane.

"This wasn't as an emotional win for me as some," Petty admitted. "But this was very emotional for the crew. Mostly because we went out cold turkey today and didn't really know what we had.

"We had blown an engine earlier in the week and had maybe 30-35 laps of track time on this car. The engine we started with today had never been on the track. We just didn't know what to expect.

"As we raced, we discovered we could handle just about as well as everyone else under the circumstances, but no one was faster than Bobby down the straights. So it was the crew that delivered this win. I leave the strategy to them. I'm too busy out there racing.

"Dale's got full authority, and when he told me we weren't using up the tires, well, I radioed back that I would do whatever he thought was right. So when it came time to play follow-the-leader down pit road, we didn't follow.

"It was Dale's call. I give full credit for this win to him and the crew."

All drivers want to win the Daytona 500. It gives them bragging rights for the remainder of the year and a few even say that a 500 win makes the season, regardless of what happens later.

In 1981, Petty echoed those sentiments.

"The Daytona 500 sets the season for a driver," he said. "Every time we have won here, we've had a good year."

Two days later, however, everyone in NASCAR was shocked when Inman, Petty's cousin who had masterminded the Daytona 500 victory, announced he was leaving Petty Enterprises after decades of service to join Rod Osterlund and his driver, Earnhardt.

Inman felt his progress with Petty Enterprises had come to a halt. The belief that he could gain more professionally and financially with Osterlund, coupled with more time with his family, prompted the move.

However, it lasted only five years. Inman returned to Petty Enterprises in 1986 after stints with Osterlund and team owner Billy Hagan, for whom Inman directed Terry Labonte to the 1984 Winston Cup championship.

Petty did have a good year in 1981 following his Daytona 500 victory, but not a great one by his standards. He won just three races, finished among the top-five 12 times and among the top-10 16 times. He drifted to ninth place in points. He did not know it at the time, but his last career Winston Cup championship had come in 1979.

Nor did he know that the 1981 Daytona 500 victory would be the last of his storied career. Following that win, for the rest of his career, which ended after the 1992 season, he would earn just seven more victories to bring him to 200. It's not likely that NASCAR record will ever be eclipsed.

Petty's 1981 Daytona 500 victory is significant because, as he will tell you, it illustrates the power of strategy and teamwork. Petty did not have the fastest car in that race. It wasn't even the best-handling.

"If I had been racing in a pack of cars for the win, I would have been in trouble," Petty said. "I couldn't run wide open in a crowd. The car was loose and I tried to stay out of a draft. Fast cars get slowed down when they are in front of a draft because the cars behind them slow 'em down.

"But when I got in front after that last pit stop, I was so far out in front there were no cars towing behind me. That's what it took for us to win. If we hadn't made the pit stop we had, I would not have won.

"So winning isn't necessarily a driver thing or a car thing. It's a team thing."

Thus it was for Petty and Petty Enterprises in the 1981 Daytona 500.

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