MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- The question is age-old and natural, and it hangs in the air like the dust that dances skyward from the surface of the antique wooden table and through the beams of light glaring down on it, only to disappear behind the shoulders of the two men seated here side by side. They chat and laugh and reminisce about old stories they both know well but experienced from completely different angles.
They've known each other for a long time, but they don't know each other well.
The room is dim and packed with people. And all eyes are fixed on this table.
These are quite possibly the two most popular men in NASCAR history.
The question hangs a moment longer.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. considers it before peering to his left, deferring to his elder. That's how he was taught, after all.
Seated beside Earnhardt is Richard Petty -- The King of NASCAR -- he of the trademark plumaged cowboy hat and blackout shades and whiteout grin, and of the record 200 NASCAR victories and of the seven Cup series championships. And he whom many consider to be the answer to this question wafting about, anyway:
Who is the greatest of all time?
Petty sits up a degree or two straighter in his chair. (This is notable. The King has Miss America posture.) His hands unclench and rotate 90 degrees, as if he's ready to karate-chop the table.
"There is no such thing," Petty says, gesturing with his left hand, stirring the dust and drawing a nod and a grin from Earnhardt. "There is always a faster gun. It don't matter."
Don't matter? Sure it matters. It is among the greatest debates from the Dutch Inn to the Ocean Deck to Billy Bob's, and from end to end on Talladega Boulevard: King Richard? Dale Sr.? Cale? Pearson? Allison? Darrell? Gordon? Johnson (Junior or Jimmie)?
Everyone who loves NASCAR has an opinion about who is the greatest wheelman the sport has ever seen. Except for The King, it seems.
"The reason it don't matter is we are comparing apples to oranges, OK? These guys do their thing, in their time, under their circumstances, under their people," he continues. "OK? I did my thing against my crowd, all right? Junior is doing his thing against his crowd. How can you compare this crowd to this crowd, with 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 years difference?"
This is a fair point. Quite.
"There is no way [to compare]," he continues. "Somebody might come by and excel in an era, but you can't take Babe Ruth and put him out there and with the guys who's doing it now. The ball is different. The bats are different. The fields are different. Strategy is different."
Indeed. Context always overrides numbers, subject be damned.
So, Junior, who ya got?
"I ain't arguing with that!" Earnhardt says. "I was going to say, though, I imagine that I wasn't allowed to see the greatest. I imagine that some of those guys that were around when Richard first started may have been some greatest to ever drive. But between [Petty], Dad, David Pearson, Jimmie Johnson you can't pick one."
So they generally agree here. This is a theme today, Junior toeing a corner of Kingdom.
Earnhardt's respect for Petty permeates every answer he offers on a wide range of topics. His responses are unique in thought but mindful of the institution. This is not surprising. Junior's admiration is keen for the racers who built the stage he now commands.
"You don't talk to Richard Petty unless he talks to you," Junior says.
Petty grins widely. Earnhardt does not. He could not be more serious.
Neither recalls their first meeting. Both figure it was in a garage somewhere in Wilkesboro or Charlotte or Martinsville, Va. Petty rewrote the definition of success on the track and among fans and sponsors. He was a busy man back in the early '80s, when Junior was a carefree kid running around the infield on a scavenger hunt for used parts. But Petty always said hello. He always made time for pleasantries.
The impact of that acknowledgement on a young boy is unquantifiable.
It takes a mere tick of the clock for one man. Its impact lasts forever for the other.
That's the thing about The King: The wins and championships are legend, not legacy.
Petty's legacy is time.
"You can't have more respect for anybody than Richard has in the sport, for what his family did," Earnhardt says. "Every sport has a 'guy' that personifies what the sport is about, and almost creates what the sport is on his own."
Petty is The Guy in NASCAR, Earnhardt says, based on longevity of relevance alone. Junior notes admirably how Petty raced 80 or 90 nights a year on nowhere racetracks, in nowhere towns all over the country, all the way through NASCAR's primitive stages.
There were better drivers back then. Petty openly admits that. But those men didn't have access to the same resources: people, equipment, sponsors, the like.
"There is no deal where you can take a driver and say he's got better eyesight, better reflexes, he's in better shape or he's got a better mind," Petty says. "It don't work that way. It's the combination."
The sport had never seen a combination like The King. And once he reached The Show, as a 21-year-old in 1958, he hitched the sport to his pedal and pen and tore the rearview mirror off. For the next 30 years, he wrote the standard by which every driver after him would be measured.
"He's seen it all, and he was a part of it all. And he was successful throughout that entire time," Junior says. "He showed all the drivers how to work with fans, how to treat everybody with respect -- how to sign every autograph.
"That was the whole thing about Richard -- first thing I heard is he signs every autograph. And that's how it's going to be: If you are going to be a race car driver, that's the way you need to do it.
"There are certain people in certain sports that are remembered for leaving their mark, and nobody left a bigger mark than Richard."
Daddy always told me far back as I recall
Son, you're part of somethin',
You represent us all
So keep it how you got it, as solid as it came
It's my last name
Country music star Dierks Bentley wrote those words a decade ago, a stanza in his song titled "My Last Name." Its premise is fundamental: If you lose everything and get stripped to the foundation, you still take pride in that foundation -- your surname. And no matter where you go or what you do, always strive to do right by that lineage. For that lineage made you.
No sport celebrates that dynamic more than NASCAR does. Names like Allison and Jarrett and Flock, and these days Burton and Busch, are part of the sport's familial fabric. But no surnames have had the sustained impact that Petty and Earnhardt have had.
The pair is asked why it is important that their names stay relevant.
"I guess it's a pride deal," Petty begins. "Ever since I was 11 years old, I've been involved in racing. It's my life. And I like for the racing to be accepted as good as it can. It makes me appreciate what I have been through, but also looking at the standpoint that you've done something for 60 years and people respect that.
"And you've entertained a lot of people over a lot of time. So, from a personal standpoint, you want that to continue. And you know, it will continue for a certain amount of time. You want people to remember you, like them to remember you. All of them won't, but that is one of things that you try and do."
Earnhardt nods. Every man wants to be remembered for his contribution to the sport, for being an asset to its success and evolution.
"Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson, Allison, all of them names, they are ingredients to the sport, what's made the sport, and you don't want people to forget that," Junior says. "I am proud of the Earnhardt name, but it don't stand alone. You know it's part of the sport, with all those other historic people that have been a part of it, and you don't want people to forget the part you had in it, and what you did and the contributions you made and the sacrifices you made."
This is one of the few times Petty and Earnhardt have shared a table. It is early January, and they're in the Old Western saloon tucked deep inside Junior's expansive North Carolina compound.
It's like John Wayne stopping in at Jack Bauer's place to chat about slaying bad guys.
Watching them respond and react to the other's feedback was fascinating. It's easy to discuss another man when he's not present. When he sits right beside you, the air is thicker.
They spent the morning mugging for cameras as spokesmen for Goody's headache powder. The King has a lifetime deal with Goody's and has endorsed the product for nearly four decades. Junior, meanwhile, just signed on "to take [the brand] from the old guys to the young guys," Petty says.
A NASCAR historian of Smithsonian ilk, Earnhardt is downright giddy about the opportunity to align with Petty. He notes that Goody's was the first non-automotive sponsor in NASCAR, and chuckles about memories of listening to Petty explain Goody's merits as only he can: "It's just plain faist," of course.
It's a good fit, these two. Despite the generation gap, they share much in common. Both entered the sport with championship surnames. Richard's father, Lee, won NASCAR titles in 1954, '58 and '59. And Earnhardt's father, Dale Sr., is the only man to equal Richard Petty's seven championships.
As the conversation turns to the pressure of the name, Petty sits up straighter yet and stops to emphasize the difference between the pressure he faced and that which Junior carries still.
"There was so much expected from him, OK? But he handled it, win or lose or draw," Petty says. "I think he has handled it exceptionally well. I don't know of anybody in any sport or any business that has handled their self any better under their circumstances than Dale."
Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson, Allison, all of them names, they are ingredients to the sport, what's made the sport, and you don't want people to forget that.
”-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
High praise. The biggest difference between the two, Petty explains, is media interest. Petty had none. Junior had too much, although he admittedly paid it little mind. He was more concerned, he says, with driving, tuning, hanging, gaming, winning.
"You know what you're getting yourself into, that was the way I felt about it," Junior says. "I didn't want to do anything else. I wanted to drive. Nothing else mattered. So it was real easy to block out some of that pressure and some of the tension, and it's easy to not think about all the media eyes that are on you, because you don't care about nothing but just driving cars. And you just want to be in the sport and you just want to make it."
It is mentioned that that approach seems naive.
"You want to do it so bad. You want to get into the sport. You want to win races. You want to fiddle with cars. You want to go to the racetrack. You want to hang in the pits with your buddies and work on your car, staggering your tires, practicing, getting ready to qualify. Those are the things that you're concentrating on," Earnhardt continues.
"Those are the things that matter. Those are things that you can't wait to do -- so much so that you don't think about everything happening around you. You're really in your own little world when you're in there."
Petty understands the pressure of a famous name.
"Just because his name is Dale Earnhardt, they figure he is going to go out and win all the races and championships and all this kind of stuff," Petty says. "And he has handled it very, very well.
"The pressure of being a son of a hero, it makes it really, really hard to do. He's accepted it very well, and as time progresses, he gets further and further away from that. It goes more into Dale Earnhardt Jr. now. And he gets further away from his dad and he has contributed and making his own world, got his own fans and his own deal, his own situations. Senior was in one era and Junior is in another era, and so he is taking it to another era."
It is indeed a new era in auto racing. In October 2012, after two concussions in six weeks, Earnhardt willingly removed himself from the driver's seat for fear of further injuring his brain. In a world in which competitors are innately obsessed with concern that a younger, faster kid will come along and take their job, the decision was unprecedented.
"I don't know what his circumstances were, OK? Hopefully he had sense enough to listen to the doctors," Petty says. "I never did."
That's precisely what Earnhardt did. He placed the decision to race or to sit squarely in Dr. Jerry Petty's hands. Dr. Petty said sit. Earnhardt sat. In Richard Petty's day, the only factor that kept a driver from racing was death.
"Things are so much different now," Petty continues. "NASCAR, the general public, they look at you a little different, and more people know that you are hurt or not hurt. I used to break my neck, or break an arm or break your foot. You just didn't say nothing about it. You just got back in the car and done your thing.
"I told him he did it because of concussion. I told him I don't know if I ever got out of a concussion I had so many of them. I think I just walk around still in one. But it was definitely the right thing to do.
"Dale sat down and somebody talked to him, and he had sense enough to say, 'Hey, this is just one race or two races; this is one season. I got my future out there in front of me. And if I mess up now, I won't have no future. So, very, very smart decision."
Daytona Beach is special to both men. Both are Daytona 500 champions, but they have very different perspectives on the accomplishment. The King appreciates the historical significance of his seven wins in the Great American Race but doesn't outwardly consider them any more special than wins he earned elsewhere. When he started in Cup, Darlington was the crown jewel. Daytona was just another week. As years passed, Daytona gained prestige, and it eventually equaled, then surpassed Darlington's luster.
"You went down and you run the race, and if you won it, that's great. Let's throw the trophy in the truck and go home and get ready for the next race," Petty says. "Then it just got to be bigger and bigger. And now it is the Super Bowl deal."
For as long as Junior can remember, the Daytona 500 was everything for him. He grew up in a home with a father who was long haunted by the Daytona 500. Nineteen times, he tried and failed. Finally, in his 20th start, Dale Earnhardt won the Daytona 500. It is one of the two most famous wins in NASCAR history.
The years of failure resonated with Junior.
"My dad was having a hard time winning it, and it was becoming pretty apparent that how much it meant to him," Earnhardt says. "More and more that each year it passed that we almost win it and not win it.
"So the intensity was ramping up 'cause we knew that he was on the backside of the mountain as far as his career was concerned, and how many more opportunities did he have, and you could tell that was starting to eat him up. So the importance really grew and festered in that household, and by the time I am driving, it's the biggest race.
"It's a big deal. I fail to describe it every time I'm asked, what it means to win that race. I fall tremendously short of trying to get somebody to understand what that feels like."
The only victory that compares to Dale Earnhardt's Daytona 500 win came at the same track, 14 years earlier. It was Petty's final victory: the 1984 Firecracker 400. And POTUS was in the house. Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States, showed up at the race.
"I was there, and I remember in the infield just after the race, there was this tent. And everybody just sat down and ate with Richard and the president," Junior says with a laugh. "It was really surreal.
"Even though anybody could have won that race, for whatever reason, it felt like we were having a party for Richard. The president's there to celebrate, like this was all supposed to happen. Just seemed like it was destiny for that to all to fall into place."
Petty listens, and he can't hide the 2,000-watt grin.
"I just remember that it was unreal, OK," Petty says. "We wound up winning the race on the last green-flag lap and all that kind of stuff. I went up in the press box, and the president was there. It blowed his mind that Cale and I were running 200 mph, beatin' on each other. He just couldn't understand that part of it."
It is noted that most sane humans can't understand that part of it.
"Then we went down, they had a little party deal and I think I gave him a hat or shirt or something," Petty continues. "We sit down and eat some Kentucky Fried Chicken, I guess, just like it was a Fourth of July party. It just happened to be a race involved with the president of the United States.
"He was campaigning. I guess what I remember about as much as anything is, when it was all over with, he put us on the front page and we put him in the sports page. It was a pretty good trade-off."
Only the greatest have that type of impact, no?