It seems fitting that NASCAR legend Richard Petty was born only two days before the Fourth of July, because the NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee is about as American as baseball and apple pie. At 85 years old, the Level Cross, North Carolina native is easily the most respected driver to ever climb into a stock car.
They call him "The King" for a reason, as Petty raked in 700 top-10 finishes and a record-setting 200 Cup Series wins over the course of his illustrious career. Petty has so many iconic moments attached to his name, but here, we'll focus on just five Richard Petty moments that every fan should remember.
5. The Inaugural Daytona 500
Considering that it was the first-ever Daytona 500, the 1959 Daytona 500 certainly was a special one. Even though he didn't win the NASCAR race (that honor would go to his father Lee Petty, a legend in his own right), the inaugural Daytona 500 was still an all-time moment for The King and one that most diehard fans know very well.
"It was the biggest thing that we'd ever seen," Petty recalled of the historic race. "You came through the tunnel at Daytona and it just seemed like it was miles to Turn One. And the banking was the steepest we'd seen too. It was just a massive place and a really big race."
1959 was a special year for Petty in general, since he would end up being named NASCAR Rookie of the Year, after garnering nine top-10 finishes, including six top-five finishes. With Petty only being 21 at the time, it was a year that would kick off many fantastic years to come.
4. Electric Finish at the 1976 Daytona 500
Petty may not have won the '76 Daytona 500 (we promise we'll get to some of his wins later on), but this moment makes the list because it was one of the craziest racing finishes in NASCAR history and maybe even in the history of stock car racing. David Pearson and Richard Petty were two of the biggest names in NASCAR in the '60s and '70s, so it only makes sense that they would be competing for the win in this neck-and-neck competition.
In a scene straight out of a movie, Pearson and Petty made contact on the final lap and went spinning into the infield grass just yards away from the finish line. While Petty's car stalled and he was not able to restart it, Pearson was able to get his car going and cross the finish line for the win. Petty, on the other hand, needed a push-start from his crew to cross the finish line for second place.
I know that simply reading play-by-play of the race's final moments doesn't really do it justice, so you really needed to check out the above footage of the final five laps to get a feel for how incredible it was. Jackie Stewart's call of "What a finish! I've never seen anything like that!" pretty much sums it all up.
3. Petty Wins the 1979 Daytona 500 in Wild Fashion
The 1979 Daytona 500 was the first race to be televised from start to finish, and many pundits consider it to be the single most important race in stock car history. If you've ever seen footage from the race, you know exactly why.
It all started when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison wrecked with just a lap to go in the race. This allowed Petty, who was a half a lap behind both drivers at the time to edge out Darrell Waltrip by a car length and claim the victory. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. But, things wouldn't be over once Petty saw the checkered flag.
While Cale and Donnie argued in the infield, Bobby Allison, who was one lap down, stopped by to offer his brother a ride to the garage. Well, Cale had actually blamed Bobby for his loss, as the two had been going back and forth all race, so Cale decided to take his revenge by hitting Bobby in the face with his helmet while he was still in his car. Obviously upset, Bobby got out of his car and punched Bobby in the mouth. Then Donnie got involved, and it was an all-out brawl.
Petty was busy celebrating his win, but he regrets not get a close-up view of what would become one of the most infamous moments in motorsports history.
"I'd have liked to have stopped and watched," Petty later said. "It looked pretty excitin'."
The fight between Cale Yarborough and the Allisons may have been front page news, but Petty's win that day ended up marking his sixth Daytona 500 victory and would also come during the year of his seventh and final Cup title.
2. Petty's Dominant 1967 Season
With 27 victories in 48 starts in 1967 and 40 top-10 finishes, it's no surprise that Petty earned the nickname "The King" during his dominant 1967 season. To give you some perspective, the second best driver during this season, Bobby Allison, had six wins. On top of that, Petty also won 10 races in a row. Could you imagine any driver nowadays winning 10 in a row? Obviously, it's a much different sport today then it was back then, but Petty's streak is one of his many records that will go unbroken.
No other driver has dominated in the same way that Petty did in '67, and it's hard to imagine that anyone will come close anytime soon.
1. The King Earns His 200th Win
"I'd say this was my biggest win," Petty said of his 200th — and final — win at the 1984 Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Race day was a special one from start to finish: it was the Fourth of July, President Ronald Reagan was in attendance, and the end was a photo finish, with Richard Petty besting Cale Yarborough by mere feet. Reagan himself gave Petty props for the historic victory.
"I understand that no one in the whole history of racing has ever done that, won 200 races," Reagan told Petty after the race. And no driver has done it since.
As a NASCAR driver, or a NASCAR fan for that matter, it really doesn't get any more memorable than that.
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