Richard Petty, NASCAR’s first seven-time national champion, says there is “no way to compare what I’ve done.”
Petty, now 79, retired in 1992 after a distinguished 200-victory career that began in 1958. His time in NASCAR straddled the sport’s formative early years and what is considered the modern era that began in 1972.
When Petty won his first title, in 1964, NASCAR was a much different sport. A season included many dozens of races and few drivers had the major sponsors and/or direct manufacturer support needed to campaign the whole circuit; in fact, some races conflicted with others. Petty managed to get to 61 races that year; he won nine of them.
In 1967, when Petty won a whopping 27 races – a mark that will no doubt stand forever – in “just” 48 starts, he scored his second title. His championship margin over his closest rival was a ludicrous 6,028 points (out of 42,472 earned). He won a third title in 1971, taking checkered flags 21 times out of 47 starts.
How great was Petty’s dominance during these years? Oldtimers told me a story of Petty once coming back from being seven laps down, to win a race at Nashville. There were many other such examples.
In 1971, with the advent of Winston cigarette sponsorship, NASCAR decided to winnow down its Grand National series (as it was known 1950-1970), to about 30 of its premier races (the number Winston was willing to support with advertising and promotional materials). To qualify for the “Winston Cup” chase, drivers had to commit to running every race. That effectively eliminated the challenge of many of Petty’s toughest competitors, such as David Pearson, the 1966, 1968 and 1969 champion, and brothers Bobby and Davey Allison, because they ran only partial schedules back then.
Petty also won the new-format championship in 1972, 1974 and 1975.
The fields were much different then. At one Darlington race during this period, I remember only two or three cars completing the distance; the fifth place finisher was something like 25 laps down!
Petty would only win one more championship, in 1979, and he did that after having to switch from Chrysler products, which he had driven his nearly whole career, to an Oldsmobile (because debt-ridden Chrysler couldn’t produce a competitive car for him).
Petty might have won more than seven titles, if he had not been caught up in some of the political dramas around Chrysler’s participation in the sport. He missed the entire 1966 season because of a Chrysler boycott of the series after NASCAR banned the mighty Mopar Hemi engine.
Earnhardt’s dominance during the 1980s and 1990s coincided with an increase in the number of competitive teams in the sport. He won one title with as few as four victories during the 29-race campaign (and as many as 11 one year). But Nascar’s glory years, from a competitive standpoint, were just starting to peak when Earnhardt was killed at the 2001 Daytona 500.
That was the year Johnson’s career in NASCAR’s premier series kicked off. And he raced in bulging 42-45 car fields in which most everyone was capable of going the distance. Photo finishes became more common – almost an every-race experience. Consistency was the most important component to championship contention; Matt Kenseth won the 2003 title, despite winning only one race.
Johnson’s 10 victories in 2007, in the midst of an unprecedented run of five consecutive titles stands out as the most in nearly two decades.
So, Petty’s point is well taken. You can’t compare what he accomplished with the records of Earnhardt or Johnson.
Petty’s dominance through much of the 1960s and 1970s was incomparable; but much of it stands out as something akin to the Harlem Globetrotters playing the New Jersey Generals.
November 20, 2016