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Waltrip agreed. "Richard has been right in the thick of every race we've had lately," he said. "He hasn't been laying back. He has been bumping and banging and spinning out, doing everything. And he has been getting away with it."
That's not all Petty was getting away with. By exercising the charm that makes him so popular, Petty had orchestrated a masterful psych. He had directed the pressure squarely onto Waltrip's shoulders. Here was Petty, who had to have 40% of his ulcerous stomach removed after last season, who had not been on top for four long years, who had to listen to people saying he had lost it, who was nearing his last chance to prove otherwise and knew it—telling people the pressure was all on Waltrip, and getting away with it. Petty would hold court for reporters, from the rear fender of his STP-sponsored Monte Carlo, his eyes hidden behind his trademark wraparound black sunglasses, a thin cigar in his hand. He would gesture with the cigar, pointing to an imaginary ladder rung above his head, and say, "I'm already here, I can't get nowhere else." And he would say, "Pressure? I don't know how to spell the word." And when the reporters were gone he would take a hit of stomach medicine from a little plastic bottle.
It was not all that difficult for Petty to psych Waltrip, because people were so ready to believe Waltrip was ripe for choking.
He was relatively young and high-strung, had a reputation for being temperamental and had never been in the running for the NASCAR championship. And in the 10 races before Ontario, through assorted troubles, convenient to attribute to buckling under pressure, Waltrip had finished poorly five times. Waltrip wasn't buying the pressure story, and he was ticked off about the implications.
"I feel like I'm in one of those movies where the guy inherits a million dollars and all his relatives try to get him committed to the crazy house by constantly telling him he's crazy," he said recently. "Pretty soon he starts believing it. You wouldn't believe"—Waltrip almost shouted—"how much of that I've heard in the last few weeks. When Richard started gaining on me, all of a sudden everybody was saying, 'Well, Darrell's cracking up, don't bother him, he has gone crazy, leave him alone, he's under pressure.' People have come up to me and put their arm around my shoulder and looked at me with real concern in their faces and said, 'You all right?' I'd like to haul off and deck them when they do that.
"Richard's using good tactics. They all believe everything Richard says because he's the King. They don't bother him about his feeling any 'p-p-p-pressure'—see, I can't even get the word out. Here I am the Kid; I need all the help I can get, and they come over and worry me about pressure." Waltrip shook his head, a what-can-ya-do smile on his lips.
An inordinate amount of attention was being paid to the drivers anyway, for much of the credit for any NASCAR championship belongs to the winner's crew. "What it is now has gotten beyond me and Darrell," said Petty last week. "It's got down to the best equipment and the best luck."
Richard's brother Maurice and his cousin Dale Inman have been his crew for as long as he has been racing; they, too, were six-time national champions. Maurice builds the engines and Dale sets up the chassis. The electric-blue and fluorescent-red No. 43 is usually the most immaculate car at any race. Where other cars show pockmarks in the nose from slashing through the air at 200 mph, 43 gets fresh paint most weeks, in addition to treatment for more serious battle scars.
Under the hood, little parts like hose clamps seem to be replaced whenever they get scratched. The engine looks as if it couldn't possibly be lubricated by something as greasy as oil. Other cars may show tiny gaps, such as where, say, a bumper attaches to the fender, but the joints on 43 fit tightly and the seams can't be seen. When the King's car rolls off the truck it looks like a show car.
Inman is like a beautiful woman fishing for compliments. When he's told, as he often is, that his car is prettier than the others, he acts as if he's never heard it before. He smiles and replies, "Is that so?" inviting further flattery.