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About this time last year they were saying that at 41, Richard Petty was washed up. King Richard Petty who had been driving stock cars for two full decades; who had competed in 774 Grand National races and won 185 of them, 82 more than any other driver; who had won six NASCAR championships, twice as many as any other driver; who started racing beside his father and is now racing beside his son—they were saying he was done and gone. About this time last year the King hadn't won a race in more than 12 months.
They were also saying the Kid had arrived. Darrell Waltrip, the intense young hot shoe the other drivers had nicknamed "Jaws," the maverick with the temerity to speak his mind although speaking out is against the unspoken rules, had backed up his mouth with his foot. Waltrip, then 31, had paid his dues. He had been lusting after the King's crown long enough. After 10 years of racing, Waltrip was still the Kid, but at least they were saying he had arrived. When Waltrip came on the Grand National scene in 1972, it was the King himself who had said that if the young man from Franklin, Tenn. could manage to keep his mouth shut and his nose clean, he just might become the Grand National champion someday. The King would probably not want to be reminded that 1979 was the year he said the Kid might become king.
So what happened in 1979 was that the King and the Kid hooked up in the most dramatic NASCAR title race in history—a race not decided until last Sunday at Ontario, Calif. in the final event of the season. There Petty finished fifth and Waltrip eighth, and so the King was the champion once more—by the minuscule margin of 11 points.
Waltrip had started the year with a hot streak while Petty's bad racing luck continued. But in the last couple of months Petty closed the gap spectacularly. Going into Sunday's Times 500 at Ontario, the score was Waltrip 4,672 points and Petty 4,670. Thus the real race in California would be a winner-take-all battle between Petty and Waltrip. The King would regain the crown he had not worn since 1975, or the Kid would stake his own claim at last.
Despite the pressure, Petty was and is the calmest, most diplomatic and most charming driver on the circuit. Also the best loved, by a mile: nine times stock-car racing fans have voted him NASCAR's most popular driver, including the last five years in a row. There is a Petty Fan Club which has more than 15,000 members. The Pettys hold an annual Fan Club Convention at their backyard shop in Level Cross, N.C. One year, more than 30,000 men, women and children showed up to spend the day jes' hangin' 'round. A guided tour of the facilities led to a receiving line on the Petty porch, with Richard himself shaking all those hands and smiling from morning to evening. He further endeared himself by saying things like, "I don't ever try to be nothin' I'm not. You don't ever want to get above your raisin's, you know."
The faithful also got to see a dynasty, with father Lee (the first three-time NASCAR champion) and son Kyle, who at 20 has five Grand National races under his belt, in attendance. And they bought a whole bunch of Petty racing doodads from the souvenir shop on the premises. Richard Petty is probably the most popular figure in the South today, which both Ronald Reagan and John Connally, Republicans like Richard (a county commissioner in his own right), know full well. They pay him court.
Unlike Petty, Waltrip keeps close company with controversy. No driver on the circuit is unhappier when he loses, though Cale Yarborough, champion the last three years, might argue with that. While Petty has no trouble sleeping nine hours the night before a race, Waltrip gets so excited he lies awake for hours. Respected by his fellow drivers on the track, Waltrip doesn't mix with them off it. "I don't want to go out to dinner with another driver," he says. "What are we going to talk about? Racing? I don't want to hear about his problems, and he doesn't want to hear about mine."
Waltrip has done a lot of time in the NASCAR doghouse for various malfeasances. "The racing's kind of simple," he says. "The hard part is the politics and the other things you have to learn." The politics and the other things come natural to Petty; Waltrip has been reluctant to learn them, and he has paid for his defiance. In fact, having received two black flags and been knocked into the wall in the three Grand National races leading up to Ontario, Waltrip believes he might be paying for his defiance still.
This year Petty has been driving more aggressively than he has for years. Waltrip has been driving more maturely. "Darrell's getting smarter and smarter," says his crew chief, Buddy Parrott. "The older he gets, the smarter he gets."
The respective changes have made both drivers faster and the racing more exciting. The week before the showdown in Ontario, Gene Granger, who has been reporting stock-car racing as long as Petty has been driving, said, "I've never seen Richard race this hard. When he won at Dover [Del.] in September"—one of the most notoriously demanding races on the schedule—"he ran 500 laps hard; Donnie Allison and Cale were on his tail all day. Richard beat Allison by half a car length. He has been driving like that all season. He has taken more chances; he has never been more daring. He has just flat been amazing. This could be the most satisfying championship of his career, and he can smell it."