Keeping pace with ‘The King’? Hard to do after second at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For perhaps the first time in NASCAR history, “The King” wasn’t signing autographs.

“No, ain’t got time now buddy,” Richard Petty, smiling broadly but striding briskly below his famous black cowboy hat, said to a fan holding up a sharpie and program as he entered the pit lane at Daytona International Speedway, urgently searching for his famous No. 43 Chevrolet.

The 80-year-old’s purposeful pace finally slowed as he reached crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who informed Petty why his car was nowhere to be found – because driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace was involved in a postrace crash with Denny Hamlin.

“Did we beat him?” Petty asked.

“Yeah, we beat him,” Blickensderfer said.

Petty smiled while dropping his shades off his nose, turned on his heels and made a beeline back down the pit lane and into the garage, where he waved to throngs of fans cheering from the Fan Deck above while turning down three more autograph-seekers.

He paused briefly to escape the path of a wrecker towing the battered No. 43 back to the hauler and then tore off again for the care center.

Most you’ve walked in a while, King? “You got that! Damn right.”

He disappeared inside the care center and then emerged with Wallace, whom he gave a bear hug. He chatted briefly with family members and kept smiling while staring up at the scoring pylon before wandering over to some waiting reporters with a playfully gruff, “What do you want?”

Not a bad start to the season, huh?

“Almost,” Petty said. “(Wallace) was laying in there, and they was checking his blood pressure, and I walked in and said, ‘What was the last thing I told you?’ ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Don’t tear up my car.’ He just went out. I think his blood pressure went to 330!

“I wasn’t going to blame him. That’s for dang sure.”

Wallace, who placed a career-best second as the highest-finishing African-American in the 60-year history of the Daytona 500, later recounted his version of events.

“My heart is still pumping over that, sitting on the cot in the infield care center,” Wallace said. “(Petty) walks in livid, and he first thing he said, what’s the first thing I told you, with a very stern attitude and look, and I’m like, ‘Ummmm,’ and he says, ‘I told you not to wreck the car,’ and I was like, ‘I didn’t do it.’  So we shared a good laugh, and he come in and gave me a big hug after that.

“To see the smile on his face, I think you had to be there to experience that moment.”

The smile never left Petty’s face, which lit up when asked to describe Wallace’s performance.

“They’d make pit stops because they was adjusting the car, and he’d run himself back up to sixth, seventh,” Petty said. “He probably passed more cars than anybody. But he was in the race all day long. That was good. It was a good day for us.”

And a good day for NASCAR’s old guard. Petty’s eyes lit up when he gestured at the two numbers, 3 and 43, atop the infield scoring pylon. During the offseason, Richard Petty Motorsports relocated to Welcome, N.C., in a tight-knit alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and Daytona indicated the partnership already was working with Wallace delivering a crucial shove that carried Austin Dillon to an historic victory in the No. 3.

“Three and 43, been a long time since we’ve seen them at the top of the board, ain’t it,” Petty said. “That’s great. Was a good start for Chevrolet and good start with us with them. And good deal for Childress, because I can tell him the reason he won, we pushed him to it!”

It also could be a critical shove for a team that is hunting for sponsorship. Wallace scored RPM’s best finish since Aric Almirola’s July 2014 victory at Daytona.

“This shouldn’t hurt anything,” Petty said. “If we could have won the race, it would have been better, but second is the best thing besides winning. He was in the race all day long. That made us feel good.”

The seven-time champion seems to be in great spirits ever since hiring the 24-year-old Wallace, who said he served as Petty’s “Uber driver” for a Saturday night dinner.

“We were just making small talk, no cameras there,” Wallace said. “He’s been here since Day 1 running on the beaches, and ever since this was built, and just hearing all that just was like, ‘Wow.’ First of all, I wasn’t even born yet, wasn’t even a thought yet.  My parents were just born.  Just kind of showing his age there, and just hearing what he had to talk about.”

After Wallace excelled in a four-race audition substituting for an injured Almirola last season, RPM hired him last November. Petty has said Wallace puts the team in step with the new generation of fresh faces in Cup this season.

Does he also provide the car owner with extra energy?

“I’m trying to give him energy,” Petty said. “I’ve got plenty!”

Someone told him he had just proved that on his dash through the pits.

“Nobody could keep up,” he said with a wink.