Petty's win total takes an asterisk
The most overrated NASCAR record? Richard Petty's 200 victories take that honor hands down, Terry Blount writes in his new book.
Below is an excerpt from Terry Blount's new book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." It was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores.
All racers deserve respect
Let's get one thing straight from the start. No one is overrated if he is willing to strap into a race car and risk his life at 200 mph. Racers have the utmost respect from me. These are brave people with enormous talent. They have a passion for speed and a desire to control the uncontrollable, taking a dangerous machine and pushing it to the limit. But anyone who ever sat in the grandstands at a race or watched a NASCAR event on TV has made his or her own judgments. We all talk about it. Instead of Monday morning quarterbacks we're Sunday afternoon racers. We strap on those belts, put on that helmet and know how things should have gone in the race car if we were behind the wheel. This book attempts to make sense of all that debating over the years. And it's bound to stir controversy.
Most overrated NASCAR record: Richard Petty's 200 victories
If NASCAR races another 500 years, no one will surpass this mark. No one will come close. It isn't that no driver has the skill to win as often as Petty did. It just can't be done anymore. In today's NASCAR, a 200-victory mark is unachievable. Petty's record is a remarkable accomplishment for any era, but it's virtually meaningless in today's version of Cup racing.
For the first 14 years of Petty career, starting in 1958, NASCAR's top series ran at least 44 races per season. That's eight more than Cup has now.
Seven of those seasons had at least 50 events and the 1964 season had 62 races. Petty competed in 61 of them. Dale Earnhardt never had more than 34 events in a season for his entire career. NASCAR had 31 races or less in each of the first 18 seasons of Earnhardt's career.
The modern era began in 1972, and Petty proved he still could drive under the new parameters. Four of his seven championships came from 1972 to 1979 after the schedule was shortened. But only 60 of his victories came after the 1971 season.
Petty won 140 races before the modern era began. Of his 200 wins, 139 came on short tracks and 30 came on dirt tracks. Some of those victories were only 100 miles or 100 laps. The last NASCAR event on dirt in the top series came in 1970, so no one competing in Cup today ever raced a Cup event on dirt.
Nothing against racing on dirt. It's a very specialized skill. But it's not comparable to what Cup drivers do today. Petty made 155 starts on dirt tracks. He made a total of 1,184 starts. That's another record no one will match.
If a driver started his Cup career today, assuming the schedule stays at 36 events per year, he would need to race 33 years to reach Petty's mark. It's not even a remote possibility.
No active driver is within 300 starts of that total, and only drivers near the end of their careers have more than 700 starts -- Kyle Petty, Michael Waltrip and Mark Martin. Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton have over 500 starts, not even halfway to Petty's total.
The bottom line is Petty had more chances to win than any driver in history. Heck, he often got several chances in the same week. Petty won three races in one week during August of the 1962 season. He also won races on back-to-back days in Martinsville, Va., and Winston-Salem, N.C., in April of that year.
Petty duplicated that feat in March of the 1963 season, winning on consecutive days in Spartanburg, S.C., and Weaverville, N.C. During his incredible 27-win season in 1967, Petty won five races in the first 17 days of September, including two victories over a three-day span and four wins in 10 days.
Two times in the 1968 season Petty posted two victories over a three-day span. He also won four times in the last three weeks of September.
Petty won three times in 12 July days of 1969, including back-to-back days at Nashville and Maryville, Tenn.
In the final two seasons before the modern era began, Petty won 39 times in 96 races (86 starts). He won on consecutive days again in August of 1970 at Winston-Salem, N.C., and South Boston, Va.
Petty's final two-wins-in-two-days effort came in July of 1971 in New York state at Malta and Islip. He won five races in 18 days from July 14 to Aug. 1.
Compared to Cup racing today, it's like counting wins in the B Feature of a sprint car event in Peoria.
Over a 10-year span from 1962 to 1971, Petty made 454 starts. That's an average of nine more starts per season than a driver would have today. He won 135 races in those 10 seasons, truly remarkable, but also not in any way comparable to NASCAR in the 21st century.
By the way, Petty's 200-victory mark doesn't rank him at the top of the win percentage list. He's fourth at 16.86 percent. Herb Thomas (21.15 percent), Tim Flock (20.74 percent) and David Pearson (18.07 percent) all rank ahead of Petty among drivers with at least 100 starts.
Pearson is No. 2 on the career victories list with 105. And Gordon, who has 81 victories, is the only driver with an outside shot to catch Pearson in the next few years.
Of the six drivers with more than 80 victories, only Gordon and Darrell Waltrip can say all of them came in the modern era.
There's nothing wrong with Petty's winning most of his races before the modern era. Winning 200 times is quite a feat no matter where he did it or when he did it. But it isn't a valid comparison to victories over the last 36 years.
It's impossible to say how many times Gordon or Dale Earnhardt would have won had they raced in the 1960s when so many more events were scheduled each year. And it's impossible to say how many races Petty would have won had his career started in the early 1970s. But his 200 victories is a watered-down total when you examine the facts and see how many of those wins were accomplished.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.