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"Just keep movin'." And he grinned hugely.
The King kept moving that night, during a sundown walk along the beach with his family. His wife Lynda is a short, pretty no-nonsense woman with a hard voice and a soft disposition. Kyle, 15, is as tall as his father and nearly as noncommittal. Was he interested in racing? Nope. Grin. The middle daughters, Sharon and Lisa, are plump and spunky. The baby, Rebecca, just two years old, primped and squeaked and made faces until her mommy had to carry her; then she grinned proudly, with teeth nearly as big as her daddy's. The surf crashed in, long and white, echoing the passing campers and motorcycles. Fans stopped to greet The King. A large, excited black man ran up.
"I've got second sight," he told Richard. "I'm clairvoyant. If you believe, if you truly believe, you can win this race."
"Ah buhleeve!" said King Richard.
"I really don't know what the family did before stock-car racing was invented," Petty said. "They farmed, I guess, did a little bit of everything. They had a couple of trucks and hauled a lot of things. Sand, dirt, people, wood. Like that. I've got an aunt who sort of prunes the family tree. She knows. My mother likes to say that the Pettys are like bananas—they come in bunches. I don't really study that much on family history, busy with racin' and things. Don't do much beside racin'. There's a five-acre pond on our hundred acres, full of fish, but I don't fish a l�ck. There's good huntin' too, but I don't hunt. I keep movin'."
Keep movin'. When you stop later and think about it, Petty's movements during the race itself were, well, almost reptilian. Perhaps like the movements of a snake about to feed—not some hideous, nasty rattler or cottonmouth or puff adder, but rather a benevolent snake, a blue racer, maybe, or better yet, a king snake. Slow in the cool dawn preceding the event, purposeful during the warming of the day, then deadly quick, excited, all aglitter, crushing at the showdown.
During the early going, Petty displayed no great speed. All of that commodity seemed to be in the hands of Baker, Foyt, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson. It was Pearson who appeared the most menacing; he had won the last three Firecrackers, although last year he managed to beat Petty by only half a car length. Petty could not stay with the leaders during the first hot sprint. Indeed, he pitted a bit early—on the 29th lap—and took on new tires all around. "The car started vibratin'," he explained later, "so I come in and we changed all four. We figured once we could stop the vibratin' maybe everything else'd fold right in."
Petty helped it fold properly by picking up good drafts from other, harder-charging cars during the early laps. He rode in the wake of Dave Marcis, the promising journeyman from Wausau, Wis., and later, Donnie Allison. Gradually he moved up from 13th place to fifth—so sleekly, so smoothly that even the hypervocal announcer was surprised suddenly to find Petty there. By the 60th of the race's 160 laps Richard was working his way into striking range. At the halfway point, a two-car spinout in the fourth turn of the steeply banked, 2�-mile track brought Foyt into the pits for two costly stops. Shortly after the caution period ended, A. J. pitted once more with a cracked windshield that ultimately put him out of competition. Petty now lay fourth, only some five seconds behind the triple-drafting leaders—Baker, Pearson and Yarborough.
Then it was Yarborough's turn to falter. A cracked oil pan brought streamers of smoke from his car, and a warning from the stewards that the dripping oil had better be stopped pronto or Caleb would be black flagged. He dropped out soon afterward. That left Baker, Pearson and Petty on the same lap.
Now the crowd's attention shifted to Marcis who, though a lap down on the leaders, was driving a whippetlike race to unlap himself. Petty used the young charger's enthusiasm to his own advantage for a brief while, drafting him to keep in range of the faster Baker and Pearson cars. There were only about 20 laps to go now, and one pit stop for fuel would be necessary for all three contenders. That pit stop loomed larger than the race itself. Just as the time ripened, Pearson's Purolator Mercury began to smoke—burned piston, no doubt. Petty pitted with a vengeance, taking on fuel and then smoking his tires on the way out. He knew Pearson was finished, he knew that his own tire situation was better than Baker's—and Baker was his only roadblock.