It is a good place to be at this stage of the race. But the race is over for the hulking veteran, although nobody but Baker realizes it. Two weeks before, during a race at Talladega, Baker had blown an engine. There was an oil fire, usually harmless enough, except that Baker wears a strap attached from his helmet to his left shoulder to ease the strain on his neck as his car slides through the turns with a force approaching two Gs. The strap became tangled with his safety harness and Baker could not free himself. "Every time I tried to get out I'd be jerked back in," he said. "I panicked and after a minute I got woozy. I don't know what a dope addict is like, but I imagine that's how I was. I didn't care whether I got out or not. That's when the harness burned through. The doctor said 30 seconds in the car and it wouldn't have made any difference."
Baker is not fit at Darlington. The smoke and intense heat have left his lungs congested and he has severe burns on his left shoulder, his left hand and his backside. The most serious is the one on his hand, and he has wrapped the hand with gauze and covered it with a special driving glove. But just about the time he takes over second place, the glove begins to slip and expose the raw burn. From that point on he cannot fully grip the steering wheel. He drives only with his right hand down the straights, and in the turns he just barely uses his left. He does not seek a relief driver, though several are available. "I never have and I never will," he will say later, "especially not at this place."
Meanwhile, the wall is working well. Glotzbach slaps it in three... Isaac catches it in two... Marty Robbins, the country and western singer who will be named rookie of the race, taps the second turn at least three times. None of these incidents is serious, but the wall upholds its reputation.
By the 130th lap, Petty has moved up as expected, the drivers are settled and race more against a predetermined pace than they do against each other, hoping to position themselves well for the final run to the checkered flag, and also hoping to keep their cars out of harm's way. For the two lead drivers, however, Allison in his gold No. 12 Mercury and Petty in his blue No. 43 Plymouth, there is not the luxury of relaxation. For the next 42 laps they will stage the only important head-to-head duel of the race. There is, however, a significant difference between the two cars, and the sign is the telltale puff of smoke from Petty's tires as he accelerates off the No. 2 Turn and chops hard across No. 4. It is an indication that he is driving on the edge of disaster, sliding the car just a little more than he would like, coming off the turns a little more strongly than he would if his car was working perfectly. Petty is straining to stay even.
To talk about a race driver's style is a difficult business at best. While there have been innovative drivers, they are extremely rare, and, besides, when one does succeed with something new, he is quickly copied by every other good driver on the circuit. In 1967 Mario Andretti was the only driver who drifted the entire width of the sweeping turns at Daytona; now everybody does it. Richard Petty was the first to prepare for Darlington's first turn by running against the outside wall of the main straight; now there is a logjam up against that wall.
For all of this, Petty remains unique. He has exceedingly long legs and he sits hunched over the steering wheel with a distinct gap between him and the back of his seat. One senses his mechanics have not adjusted things to give him proper leg room. He is not, as they say, "one with his car" in the sense that Willie Shoemaker is "one with his horse." There is the feeling that Petty does not have his seat belt and shoulder harness fastened and that when he goes around a turn he will suddenly fly right out of the car.
Now, in his desperation, Petty is hunched over more than ever, like a driver caught in a rainstorm with bum windshield wipers. And twice a lap there is that ominous puff of blue smoke. Allison's car gives no such untoward sign. His car is working perfectly and he knows it.
After a caution flag bunches the field, Petty goes to work on Allison as best he can. On Lap 146 the two are side by side on the back straight, Allison high and Petty low with a slow car sandwiched in between. Petty gives way.
Ten laps later, however, Petty passes Allison in No. 4 and takes the lead. On 158 they enter No. 3 side by side again, this time Allison low and Petty high, but Allison easily outdrags him when they reach the front straight. Petty doggedly hangs on until, on the 172nd lap, he taps Allison ever so gently in Turn One. The crowd roars. There is bad blood between the two, going back at least four years, and, in the four major races preceding Darlington, they have finished 1-2 or 2-1 and not without some discussion of driving ethics after each one. Is Petty egging Allison on? Will Allison keep his cool? No and yes, respectively. As if by signal, the fender tap ends the duel. Petty falls back and will not seriously challenge again.
After the race he will say, "I could stay with him after a pit stop when I had fresh rubber. But he was just toying with me. He could pass me anytime he wanted to."