Happy Birthday to The King, Richard Petty: ’80 years is pretty cool’

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For most of his life, two simple yet profound words have defined him: The King.

Richard Petty hasn’t just been part of NASCAR for more than 50 years, he’s been its unchallenged, unanimous King.

Without question, Petty is the most prolific racer the sport has ever seen:

He won 200 races in the iconic No. 43 — painted, what else, “Petty Blue” — a record that likely will never be broken.

He was the first to win seven championships in NASCAR’s premier racing series.

He made an incredulous 1,184 starts over 35 years of racing. No one else has come close.

One more thing of note about those 1,184 starts: included in that number was the afore-mentioned 200 wins, as well as 555 top-fives and 712 top 10s, plus 123 poles.

That means Petty finished 10th or better in just under 64 percent of his starts.

He also was part of the first class to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, chosen along with four other individuals – Bill France Sr., Bill France Jr., Dale Earnhardt and Junior Johnson – who had the biggest impact in building the sport into what it has become.

While Petty retired as an active driver in 1992 at the age of 55, he traded in his helmet for his trademark Charley One Horse cowboy hat, continuing on at the helm of one of the most iconic teams in NASCAR history, the aptly-named Richard Petty Motorsports.

Which brings us to today, a most special day indeed, one that by NASCAR terms should be the equivalent of a national holiday:

Happy 80th birthday, King.

To fete Petty’s milestone birthday, NASCAR Talk brings you comments from Petty’s media conference Friday at Daytona International Speedway, as well as several of today’s top drivers on the influence he had on them.

First off, King, how has the sport changed from your driving days to today?

“The only thing that’s the same about racing is they throw the green flag when they start and the checkered flag when it’s over,” Petty said. “Everything else is different.

“All the PR about it, all the cars are different. The drivers are different. Each one of the people I talk about come from a different generation, so they look at different things in a different light.

“(Richard’s son) Kyle looked at things differently than I looked at things, and I looked at things different than my father looked at things just because of the generations and what we grew up with and what our circumstances were.

“So you can’t compare apples and oranges. It’s a deal that a lot of us have been fortunate enough to lead the pack at a different time, but I don’t see any one of the leaders being above the rest of the crowd, that’s just what it took to get us where we’re at.”

Always the fan favorite. This is The King’s kingdom.

RPM is an extension of what began as Petty Enterprises 68 years ago in 1949 in Randleman, North Carolina. It was founded by Lee Petty and his two sons, Maurice and Richard, who was 12 at the time.

Even though Petty Enterprises folded after the 2008 season, it regrouped and reformed the following season in a merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsports, being rechristened Richard Petty Motorsports.

RPM has struggled at times over the years, including dropping to a one-car operation for 2017 (although it has hopes of returning to a two-car operation perhaps by 2018 or 2019).

Some wonder that with Petty now turning 80, what will the future of RPM be.

“As long as I’ll be here, there’ll probably be one,” Petty said. “I don’t know if Kyle wants to take up the mallet or not.

“It’s just an idea that everybody goes through ups and downs, ins and outs. NASCAR, all the rule changes, points standings, they’re trying to do everything they can to upgrade and bring back spectators.

“Well, we’re doing the same thing only we’re struggling making sure (sponsor) Smithfield signs up for another year, and Air Force does, and we have to deal with the race car and all the people, so it’s a never-ending deal.

“If you talk to me or talk to any other teams, everyone is up in the air at this time of year most of the time trying to figure out where are we with what can do next year.

“Right now, things are looking decent (for the near future). I won’t say they’re looking great or looking bad, but we’re in the middle of some transitions deals here and should be in pretty good shape.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 14 years. But if you look over Petty’s 68 years in the sport, it’s hard to disagree he’s not been the sport’s most popular personality during that time.

“I think somebody figured the other day that probably (signed) close to 2 million autographs over a period of time,” he said. “That’s a bunch of autographs, but that’s still thank you.

“Those are the people who put me in business and the reason you’re here. If it wasn’t for the fans, you probably would have to go to work for a living.

“I have a lot of people come up who say my granddaddy used to come, my dad come, my dad brought me to the first race, I’m still coming. It’s still a way to get new fans and new things going on.”

The future of the sport, where it’s been and where it’s going, is on Petty’s mind both today and what it will eventually come to be when his final legacy is written.

“You’ve got to figure there is so much going on for young people, old people,” he said. “Nobody’s got time to sit for 4-5 hours and watch races anymore. If it lasts more than 15-20 minutes, we’re going to get our Google machine out and start punching buttons and doing something else.

“The deal there is keeping as many fans as we can, but the big deal is all those fans that used to be Richard Petty fans, there is always Richard Petty, so they’re not going to be able to come anymore.

“So we’ve got to attract the next generation. How we do that, everybody’s looking at trying to figure that out. My dad’s generation, Kyle’s generation, this is a whole different generation of people, and they’re looking at things so much different than what we did 10 to 15 years ago.

“So how do we tap into those people to keep our sport alive? It’ll take everybody to do it. Takes (the media) to do it, takes us to do it, takes NASCAR, takes TV, takes everybody in order to get to the people. There are 330 million people out there, we ought to be able to get to 50-100,000 every weekend. That’s what it’s going to take.”

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In addition to being a fan favorite, Petty has influenced countless drivers in the sport over the last seven decades.

We asked some of NASCAR’s present stars what impact The King had upon their own racing careers. Here are their thoughts:

Jimmie Johnson: “It was ’85 or ’86, I went to Riverside and saw him come through in that Petty blue car through the esses. I knew who he was but that certainly left a lasting impression in my mind to see him in person, The King. That’s a point in time when I think there was only Elvis Presley was the King, we didn’t have LeBron James.

“I saw The King in action, which was really, really cool. As my career progressed into NASCAR racing, I was around the Petty family quite a bit, competing against Adam Petty in the ASA ranks and Busch Grand National. I feel very, fortunate to be able to get to know him on a different level, also Kyle and Adam and that whole time was a lot of fun.

“Even though Adam and I were very competitive against one another on the track, (the Petty Family) treated me with open arms and were very kind and giving and I think that just speaks to the people they are and honestly, just the way Richard is in general. I also feel that we’re very fortunate to have King still in our sport.”

Brad Keselowski: “You don’t get the nickname the “King” for nothing. He’s leaving a legacy that won’t even be touched by any other driver. Maybe even any athlete in the sports world. I would put him on par with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and all those guys. What they’ve meant to golf.

“I can’t think of anyone in football or hockey. He’s still here. He’s still in the garage every day. He’s been retired for 25 years and he’s still in the garage every race week. He still has a team that he actively participates in. He’s still invested in the sport.

“You still see him promoting the sport with different things whether it’s when NASCAR goes to the White House or trips to New York or any of those things. He’s active with the Hall of Fame. Twenty-five years later!

“I don’t know where I’m going to be when I retire, I hope it’s a long way off. But I doubt that I will still be here every week. Let alone from all the success that he’s had on the race track, there’s just so many facets to his legacy that I feel bad sitting up here and trying to talk about it because I know that I’m missing so many pieces because of everything he’s meant to the sport. We’re lucky that he’s in our sport and not in another sport.”

DALE EARNHARDT JR. (in a 2013 ESPN interview): “You can’t have more respect for anybody than Richard has in the sport, for what his family did. Every sport has a ‘guy’ that personifies what the sport is about, and almost creates what the sport is on his own.

“He’s seen it all, and he was a part of it all. And he was successful throughout that entire time. 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.”

Petty’s legacy has arguably transcended anyone else in the history of the sport. Sure, you can make an argument for the sport’s founder and his successor – Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. – but when it comes to any other driver, team owner or crew chief, no one can beat the king for legacy, longevity, success and popularity.

Even the sport’s youngest stars, many who weren’t even around when he was racing, know the impact The King left upon the sport – and continues to leave.

Chase Elliott: I remember him being around the race track when Dad (Bill Elliott) was racing full time and we were coming to the track every weekend. I remember him still being very involved.

“The biggest thing with him over the years is the guy hasn’t changed a bit. You see him in the garage, he is over there poking at tires, looking at cars and walking over, seeing what you’ve got in your car, knowing you are not going to tell him no. He is going to come over there and check it out anyway.

“Awesome guy. Certainly a great ambassador for our sport. You don’t see many people who had the career he had have that still come to the race track and show the passion he does every weekend. That’s pretty cool. Happy birthday to him. 80 years is pretty cool.”

Indeed, 80 years really is pretty cool. Happy birthday, King. May you have 80 more.

Contributing: Nate Ryan, Dustin Long.

 

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Kyle Busch to run five Truck races for KBM in 2023

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Wednesday the five Craftsman Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch will race this season.

Busch’s Truck races will be:

March 3 at Las Vegas

March 25 at Circuit of the Americas

April 14 at Martinsville

May 6 at Kansas

July 22 at Pocono

Busch is the winningest Truck Series driver with 62 career victories. He has won at least one series race in each of the last 10 seasons. He has won 37.6% of the Truck races he’s entered and placed either first or second in 56.7% of his 165 career series starts.

Zariz Transport, which specializes in transporting containers from ports, signed a multi-year deal to be the primary sponsor on Busch’s No. 51 truck for all of his series races, starting this season. The company will be an associate sponsor on the truck in the remaining 18 series races.

Myatt Snider to run six Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Myatt Snider is the latest driver to be announced as running a select number of Xfinity races in the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Snider will run six races with the team. Ryan Truex (six races), Joe Graf Jr. (five) and Connor Mosack (three) also will be in JGR’s No. 19 Xfinity car this year.

Snider’s first race with the team will be the Feb. 18 season opener at Daytona. He also will race at Portland (June 3), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7), Las Vegas (Oct. 14), Martinsville (Oct. 28) and the season finale at Phoenix (Nov. 4).

The deal returns Snider to JGR. He worked in various departments there from 2011-15.

“We’re looking forward to have Myatt on our No. 19 team for six races,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity and development. “Building out the driver lineup for this car is an opportunity for JGR to help drivers continue to develop in their racing career, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Myatt continues to grow.”

Said Snider in a statement from the team: “With six races on our 2023 schedule, I’m looking forward to climbing into the No. 19 TreeTop Toyota GR Supra with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Having worked with JGR as a high schooler and a young racer, it’s an awesome full circle moment to return as a driver to the team that taught me so much about racing itself.

“It’s good to be reunited with (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff as we have an awesome history working together. With many memories and wins from 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the No. 20 Toyota Camry under Jason’s leadership, the team has always been more of a family relationship to me. I’m glad to be returning to the JGR family and looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as a driver.”

Daytona will be Snider’s 100th career Xfinity start. He has one series win and 21 top 10s. He was the rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2018.

Tree Top will be Snider’s sponsor for his six races with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Also in the Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding, who will run full season with SS Green Light Racing, announced that he’ll have sponsor Panini America for multiple races, including the Daytona opener. Emerling-Gase Motorsports announced that Natalie Decker will run a part-time schedule in both the ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series for the team.

 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”