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Friday 5: New slogan spotlights Jimmie Johnson’s focus in 2020

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CONCORD, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson is not chasing history. He seeks to enjoy it.

Johnson’s revelation this week that he has ditched #chasing8 for #One FinalTime as the slogan for his final Cup season is not a sign of surrender, he insists.

Instead, he wants to be more focused on the moment and hope that leads to greater goals.

“I’m not chasing anything,” the seven-time Cup champion said Thursday at the Hendrick Motorsports complex.

Johnson used #6pack on his quest for a sixth title and #se7en in his bid for a seventh title. He had used #chasing8 while seeking an unprecedented eighth Cup title for a driver.

Jimmie Johnson on his final season: “I’ll lay it on the line and go.” (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Even without the slogan, Johnson says he remains focused on this coming season.

“I’m going to get in that car, I’m going to give it 100% as I always do … I’ll lay it on the line and go,” he said.

But Johnson’s go has been slow in recent years. He is winless in 95 races, dating back to June 2017 at Dover International Speedway.

Since that victory, Johnson has six top-five finishes, 29 top 10s and led 216 laps. He has not finished better than third in a points race in that span.

Such struggles make it easy to discount a driver for championship contention — even one of only three seven-time champions in series history.

It’s not been just one thing, though, that has held the 44-year-old back. His struggles coincided with a decline in performance for Hendrick Motorsports in 2017 and ’18. Chevrolet’s Camaro had its issues. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus split after the 2018 season. Johnson went on to change crew chiefs again in 2019 when performance soured.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Johnson said of missing the playoffs last year for the first time in his career. “I was angry, embarrassed.”

He cites last year as a learning experience in racing without Knaus on his pit box. Without Knaus’ leadership, there was a vacuum and Johnson had to understand how to help fill it. As his performance waned, the team struggled. A late-summer crew chief change failed to get Johnson into the playoffs.

Johnson, considered among NASCAR’s greatest drivers, said that “winning races, making the playoffs would be a good season (this year). A great season is going (multiple) rounds (in the playoffs). The ultimate season is being in that championship four.”

First Johnson must be able to run at the front. And win again.

Jimmie Johnson celebrates his 2016 title with wife Chandra and daughters Lydia (held by Johnson) and Genevieve.(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

While his 83 career Cup victories are tied for sixth with Cale Yarborough on the all-time list, Johnson’s focus is to win again to show his daughters what he can do. Genevieve is 9 years old and Lydia is 6.

“I think deep down inside it would be very satisfying,” Johnson said of winning again. “In my heart of hearts I still now I’m doing my best work out there.

“I can also say from a family perspective, to have another moment or two this year with my family in that environment and winning at the top level would be very special for us.

“I guess, ultimately, my kids don’t remember going to victory lane. They don’t have any vivid memories of it. They have no filters. To come home and especially Lydia is like, ‘so Dad, we didn’t win, what happened?’ Evie is so polite about it: ‘Dad you tried hard, good job.’

“To have that moment with them and a moment they will hopefully remember … would be really special.”

2. Hope for Nashville for 2021?

NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc. are not ready to publicly shut the door on a race at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville for 2021, even though no deal has been announced between Nashville and SMI. NASCAR is expected to release the 2021 Cup schedule in April.

“We’re having great discussions with leadership in Nashville,” Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., told NBC Sports this week. “We think it’s a great opportunity for the city and for NASCAR and for Speedway Motorsports. … Everything we’re working on seems to be moving forward in a reasonable pace.

Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville in July 2019. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I don’t think I can really put a timeframe on it right now because it would just be speculation. I’m very optimistic about NASCAR in Nashville.

“The timing is one of those things that once we get the agreement done, then we’ll have some planning and … the actual construction will take place. It’s a big project and one that when it’s done, the city of Nashville will be really proud of.”

Speedway Motorsports Inc. seeks an agreement with the city to bring top-tier stock-car racing back to Nashville but has not been able to work through financing and other issues. SMI proposed a $60 million renovation plan in May for the historic .596-mile track that would increase seating capacity from 15,000 to 30,000, among other projects.

A previous plan for $54 million in bond payments was rejected by then-Mayor David Briley. John Cooper defeated Bailey to become the city’s mayor in September.

The Tennessean reported in December that the mayor’s spokesperson confirmed that the administration received a new proposal from SMI and it was being reviewed.

Cooper told the Nashville Rotary Club on Monday, according to The Tennessean, that “racing needs to be a success, not just soccer (at the Fairgrounds property). It has to be a workable overall site plan.”

However, The Tennessean notes that that Cooper has not said if he supports a deal to bring NASCAR’s top-tier series to the Fairgrounds.

The Tennessean reported Thursday that Cooper had met with auto racing advocates this week.

Asked if Nashville was still a consideration for the 2021 schedule, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said: “I would say Nashville as a market is a high priority for us in 2021.”

3. Changes for 2020

Along with the changes to stage lengths this season — and how a race will be official once it hits the halfway mark (unless the end of the second stage occurs first) — NASCAR also revealed a few other changes for the coming season.

Last year, NASCAR typically took no more than one car to the R&D Center after a race. That was primarily to study trends in the sport and if NASCAR needed to adjust any rules. The point was to get away from issuing penalties days after the race.

This year, series officials said they would look at taking multiple cars back to the R&D Center after Cup races.

“We tried to do the best we could in response to the teams and try to curb development,” said Jay Fabian, NASCAR Cup director. “Part of that there is that there’s been a new set of rules as far as a parts freeze. Teams have to submit a significant amount of parts and they have to run those parts throughout the year. They have options of each part, they can mix and match as long as they are on that list.

“We will bring more cars back this year because that’s, quite honestly, a lot of work postrace. So we’re going to bring that back and make sure everybody is on the up and up.”

Fabian said if NASCAR found “a major, significant issue, we’d react to it” by issuing a penalty that week.

Erik Jones drives the Next Gen car in a test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Jan. 2020. (Photo: NASCAR)

In regards to the Next Gen car, NASCAR’s next test will be March 2-3 at Auto Club Speedway. That’s expected to have only one car but NASCAR anticipates having two cars test by April. That would give officials more information on how a Next Gen car reacts behind another car. Teams are expected to take delivery of their first Next Gen car by July. Tests will be set up for August and beyond.

Five tests are expected to be held for teams before next season. How those tests will be done — whether only one car per organization is allowed or one car per team — will be determined later.

Also, NASCAR officials were scheduled to meet Wednesday with manufacturers in the sport and those that could join the sport about a new engine for 2023, among other issues.

4. Stress of rule change on teams

There have been many reasons discussed for Team Penske’s decision to change its entire driver/crew chief lineup for this season after winning six Cup races and placing all three drivers in the top 10 in points.

As Brad Keselowski acknowledged this week, that type of season was good but not good enough.

“We want to be great,” he said. “We want to win championships. You’ve got to recognize that winning races is still a significant accomplishment in this sport. It’s great competition week in and week out, so winning is good but also emphasize that greatness is the championship. We didn’t win it. It means we’ve got work to do.”

Brad Keselowski with crew chief Paul Wolfe last season. As part of Team Penske’s moves, Wolfe will be Joey Logano‘s crew chief this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Keselowski, who will be teamed with crew chief Jermey Bullins this season, also expressed his belief on why the change was made at Team Penske.

“I’ll be honest with you, I think the rules package is as much a factor as anything else,” Keselowski said. “The rules changed when we went to the high downforce and the really small horsepower. That’s really hard to accept. It’s hard to accept for the drivers. It’s really hard to accept for the teams with respect some of the things that we consider telltales of the past that are not necessarily the telltales of today.

“Used to get into this car and you were a good racecar driver if you could run every lap within half a tenth to a tenth (of a second). With these rules, the lap time variance is very significant. You might run one lap, let’s say around (Charlotte Motor Speedway), a 30 (second) flat and the next lap you catch the draft wrong in all the wrong places and you run a 31 flat and the team sees that and they say ‘What the hell? What is this guy out here doing? Is he drunk? Is he not focused? What’s going on?’

“I think it’s part of the package. When you’re not winning, when you’re having the bad days you’re going to have in this sport … it really has put a lot of stress on the team relationships, driver relationships, that dynamic. I think that dynamic has caused a fair amount of rift and ripples across the whole sport and the easiest way for Team Penske to fix it was this change because it forces everyone to think a little bit more thoroughly and different about it.

“That’s one of many examples, it’s not the only reason. I do think the rules change has had a drastic impact on the drivers’ and teams’ abilities to communicate with each other and value the right things.”

5. An unforgettable ride

One of John Andretti’s greatest gifts was what he could give others. Sometimes it was his wit that left one laughing. Sometimes it was his smile and positive nature even through a battle with colon cancer that ended Thursday with his death at age 56.

Other times it was his drive.

Andretti, the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, won an IndyCar race, two Cup events, a Rolex 24 and even a USAC national midget race. He also competed in NHRA, reaching the semifinals once. 

Of all that, there was one drive that illustrates Andretti’s essence.

It came in his 1999 Cup win at Martinsville Speedway for Petty Enterprises. Andretti won the day after Petty Enterprises claimed the Martinsville Truck race, completing a weekend sweep for the famed organization that no longer exists.

But Andretti’s path was not easy that day. He fell a lap down less than 50 laps into the event after he was hit from behind by Ward Burton and spun. No Martinsville Cup winner in the previous decade had come back from a lap down to win.

MORE: Motorsports world mourns passing of John Andretti 

Andretti needed less than 100 laps to pass leader Jeff Gordon and get back on the lead lap. A two-tire pit stop with about 120 laps left played a key role and Andretti did the rest. He was third with 50 laps to go.

Andretti passed Gordon for second with about 12 laps to go as his car suffered a vibration.

“With 12 to go, I figure the heck with it,” Andretti said later that day. “Nobody is going to remember if you run third.”

Andretti challenged close friend Jeff Burton for the lead and drove past the Virginia driver with four laps to go as the crowd cheered.

After taking the checkered flag, Andretti took an extra victory lap. On his way to victory lane, he stopped to give car owner Richard Petty a ride.

The sight of Petty sitting on the driver’s window opening as Andretti drove the No. 43 to victory lane is a memory that won’t be forgotten.

Coffee with Kyle: Richard Petty and Dale Inman went separate ways

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With the end of the 2018 season, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have parted ways. Johnson has a new crew chief in Kevin Meendering; Knaus has a new driver in William Byron.

The latest edition of “Coffee with Kyle” takes a look at another legendary pairing that split up: Richard Petty and his cousin Dale Inman.

Petty and Inman both believe Knaus has a better chance at winning another championship than Johnson. They came to that conclusion based on experience.

Petty and Inman combined for 166 wins and seven championships before they split up.

“(Going our separate ways) was probably one of the best things that ever happened to both of us,” Petty said. “Because once we got away from each other we realized how we depended on each other.”

Separating might have been good for them personally, but Petty’s performance was never the same. He went on to win just two more races.

Petty’s 199th win came at Dover in May 1984.

“Dover was a big win,” Petty said. “It had been a while since we won. But then everything was ‘the next race, the next race, the next race’ before we went to Daytona. Everybody was expecting the 200 anytime. We was too. But it couldn’t have been any better than for us to win the 200th race July the 4th in front of the President of the United States (Ronald Reagan).

“If you wrote a script, nobody would have bought it.”

Part 1: Richard Petty: Racing ‘took us to the real world’
Part 2: The story behind debut of Plymouth’s NASCAR Superbird

Inman was hired by Rod Osterlund in 1980 and crewed the car for Dale Earnhardt and later Joe Ruttman without another win. 

“Then we got Tim Richmond and what a natural he was,” Inman said. “Didn’t know nothing about a race car. … Even Earnhardt respected him a lot, because he came in and raced Earnhardt.”

In 1982 Richmond won twice at Riverside. Those were the first wins for Inman after leaving Petty Enterprises.

Inman scored another championship with Terry Labonte in 1984. They won on consistency with only two wins but top fives in 17 of 30 races that year.

Regarding a short-lived pairing with Earnhardt, Inman said: “He couldn’t control himself. Darrell Waltrip intimidated him so bad it was unreal. The bad thing on my resume was I never won a race with Earnhardt.”

The episode can be found on the NBC Sports YouTube page.

Click here to watch the “Coffee with Kyle” episode with Tony Stewart.

Friday 5: Silly season, charter sales and track news

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Not since 2009 have two former Cup champions switched teams — but might that take place for next season?

With 12 races left this year, former champions and free agents Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch have not stated where they will race in 2019.

Truex has won 20 percent of the Cup races since last season, finished in the top five 56.7 percent of the time and scored a top 10 in more than two-thirds of those races.

It would seem natural that the 38-year-old reigning Cup champion will stay with Furniture Row Racing, but everything changed when 5-hour Energy announced July 18 it would end its involvement in NASCAR after this season. 5-hour Energy became a co-primary sponsor for 30 Cup races this season on the No. 78 team with Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats.

Two weeks ago at Bristol, Truex couldn’t give a number when asked to estimate a percentage of remaining with the team after this season.

“Right now, we need sponsorship,” Truex said then. “That’s as simple as it gets.”

Busch, 40, signed a one-year extension with Stewart-Haas Racing in December, after Monster Energy decided to return as a team sponsor. Busch, the 2004 Cup champ, has said he’s talked to multiple teams about a ride for next year.

Busch won two weeks ago at Bristol to assure a playoff spot. He has four top-five finishes and 15 top-10 results this season — nearly bettering what he did last season for SHR.

The last time two drivers with Cup championships switched teams for the same season was 2009 when Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte changed teams.

Stewart, a two-time champion at the time, went from Joe Gibbs Racing to Haas CNC Racing, which was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing. He won his third title in 2011 for that organization. Labonte, who won the 2000 crown, moved from Petty Enterprises to Hall of Fame Racing in 2009.

2. Boom or Bust?

When a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of BK Racing — and its charter — to Front Row Motorsports last week, it marked the ninth time that a charter has been sold since the system was created before the start of the 2016 season.

One charter has been sold twice in that period, meaning eight separate charters (22.2 percent) have been sold in less than three years. Many more have been leased. Teams can lease a charter once in five years.

The charter system debuted in February 2016 after about 18 months of discussions between NASCAR and team owners. NASCAR announced there would be 36 charters, guaranteeing each holder a starting spot in each race. The charter system also guarantees a set amount of income that isn’t solely based on a team’s finishing position in a race. Performance the past three years, a fixed amount per race and year-end point fund money also are factored.

The point was that teams could better budget what they would receive during the season and have a better idea of how much sponsorship they needed.

Also, the charter system was billed as a way to provide greater value to teams and led to the creation of a Team Owners Council, similar to what Cup drivers have. The Team Owners Council since has played a key role in the discussion of rule changes.

The money paid for charters has been kept quiet. Court documents from BK Racing’s bankruptcy case state that BK Racing sold a charter to Front Row Motorsports for $2 million in December 2016.

The bankruptcy court approved Front Row Motorsports’ purchase of BK Racing for $2.08 million. That included the charter, cars, equipment and other assets, meaning the charter sold for less than the one BK Racing sold in December 2016.

The bankruptcy court approved the bidding process for the BK Racing sale. A price of $1.8 million from Mike Beam, president of GMS Racing, was set as the minimum bid for the charter and certain assets. At the auction, Front Row Motorsports was the only bidder and topped Beam’s total.

Less than three years into the charter system, the movement of charters shows the difficulties with owning a team. The hope was that it would lead to a way for new investors to join the sport — and it could happen in the future.

But it takes more than a charter. There is all the equipment that must be purchased, personnel hired and the need for an alliance to have any hope of being competitive. Then there’s the sponsorship that a team needs to secure. That’s even a big jump for an Xfinity team to make if it wants to move to Cup.

With all that, it’s not surprising at this point that the charters have been passed among those that already own teams.

Here are the charters that have been sold since the charter system was created:

2016 season — Michael Waltrip Racing sold a charter to Stewart-Haas Racing for the No. 41 car.

2016 — Michael Waltrip Racing sold a charter to Joe Gibbs Racing for the No. 19 car.

2017 season — Premium Motorsports sold a charter to Furniture Row Racing for the No. 77 car.

2017 — BK Racing sold a charter to Front Row Motorsports for $2 million, according to court documents.

2017 — HScott Motorsports sold a charter to Premium Motorsports for the No. 15 car.

2017 — Tommy Baldwin Racing sold a charter to Leavine Family Racing for the No. 95 car.

2018 season — Furniture Row Racing sold the No. 77 car’s charter to JTG Daugherty for the No. 37 car.

2018 — Roush Fenway Racing sold a charter to Team Penske for the No. 12 car.

2018 — BK Racing charter sold in bankruptcy court to Front Row Motorsports for $2.08 million, including various assets.

3. Track News – Rockingham

The Richmond County Daily Journal reported that Rockingham Properties, LLC was expected to finalize paperwork Thursday on the purchase of Rockingham Speedway.

The paper did not list a price but stated that county tax administrator Vagas Jackson said the property was valued at $2,993,324. The paper reported that Dan Lovenheim, who owns restaurants and bars in and around Raleigh, North Carolina, is the majority owner of Rockingham Properties LLC.

Lovenheim did not provide the paper with plans for the track only to say they are “remarkably encompassing.”

4. Track News – Lucas Oil Raceway

The Indianapolis Star reported Thursday that Lucas Oil Raceway, which includes the drag strip that will host the upcoming U.S. Nationals, a road course and an oval track where the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series used to race, is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation.

The first phase is focused on the drag strip.

Future plans call for improvements to the 0.686-mile oval so that it can host more stock car races.

“I think it’s no secret that we’d like to see other forms of stock car racing, be it different forms of NASCAR racing that come back out here,” Kasey Coler, the track’s general manager, told the newspaper. “That’s long term what we’d like to see.”

5. Did you know …

Darlington Raceway is Ryan Newman’s best track based on average finish. He has an average finish of 11.68 there. His next best track is Rockingham. He had an average finish of 12.4 there.

Since 2009, Newman and Denny Hamlin have the most top-10 finishes at Darlington Raceway with seven each. Next are Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. with six each.

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Hendrick Motorsports seeks to snap yearlong winless streak

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When Kevin Harvick crossed the finish line first Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it not only continued the dominance of the sport’s Big 3, it also continued Hendrick Motorsports’ winless drought.

The organization, which has won a record dozen Cup titles, has gone 36 races — a full season — without a series win. Monday was the one-year anniversary of Kasey Kahne’s overtime victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports has not won since, leaving it at 249 career Cup victories (ranking second to Petty Enterprises’ 268 wins on the all-time list).

This is the second-longest winless drought for Hendrick Motorsports. It had a 40-race drought that went from June 1991 at Sonoma to September 1992 at Richmond. Ricky Rudd snapped the organization’s drought the following race at Dover.

“We’re working really hard right now on our performance from the entire organization side,” said Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, on a periscope video posted by the team Wednesday morning. “Everybody is working really hard to get us back to the standards where we expect to be.”

NASCAR AMERICA: Chase Elliott joins Dale Earnhardt Jr. on today’s show at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

While Hendrick searches for its next win, it could celebrate Chase Elliott winning a stage last weekend at New Hampshire — the first stage a Hendrick driver has won this season.

Elliott scored his team-high fifth top-five of the season at New Hampshire, placing fifth.

“We took a step in the right direction,” he said after the race.

His best finish this season is a runner-up performance at Richmond. Short tracks have been good for Hendrick Motorsports this season. Jimmie Johnson’s best finish of the year is third at Bristol. Alex Bowman’s best finish of the year is fifth at Bristol.

Johnson, Elliott and Bowman are in a position to make the playoffs. They hold what would be the three final spots. Bowman, who holds what would be the final playoff spot, has finished 11th or better in four of the last five races. He holds a 28-point lead on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and a 29-point lead on Paul Menard for that spot.

Johnson was 10th at New Hampshire and also saw signs of progress.

“Top five right now on sheer speed is something we are achieving and trying to get to,’’ he said at New Hampshire. “All-in-all we had a good day, always could be better, but a nice solid step forward.”

WINLESS STREAKS BY ORGANIZATION

0 races – Stewart-Haas Racing

1 – Furniture Row Racing

2 – Joe Gibbs Racing

10 – Team Penske

19 – Richard Childress Racing

30 – Chip Ganassi Racing

36 – Hendrick Motorsports

39 – Roush Fenway Racing

42 – Wood Brothers Racing

71 – Front Row Motorsports

142 – JTG Daugherty Racing

147 – Richard Petty Motorsports

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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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