Commentary

The King in sixth? There needs to be a recount

The man has 200 wins and seven Cup titles. He's one of the most beloved figures in American sports. Ryan McGee wants to know: How the heck did Richard Petty come in sixth?

Updated: May 22, 2008, 1:52 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Richard PettyChris Gardner/US PresswireRichard Petty won seven championships and 200 races, winning at least two races a season from 1960 to 1979.

I was just glancing over our ESPN.com Top 25 Drivers of All Time list, and, going from the bottom up, everything seemed pretty normal. Granted, Don Garlits being ranked behind Shirley Muldowney was a little odd, and I'm not sure where Bobby Allison, Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney went (I had them all on my ballot).

But, hey, these things happen, right? No harm, no foul.

Then, I got to No. 6 … Richard Petty?

The guy with 200 wins?

The one with the big hat and sunglasses?

The King?

Sixth?

What in the Wide, Wide World of Sports is going on here?! Did I miss something? Did the end of the Bible arrive, and I just haven't found out yet?

Am I on "Punk'd"?

How can someone who had the kind of effect Richard Petty had on his sport -- on American sports -- be ranked outside the top five? Let's go over the résumé, shall we? Each of the following is a NASCAR record:

And those records only scratch the surface of what Petty accomplished on the track. The records section of the 2008 Sprint Cup media guide lists what it deems the 18 most impressive individual marks in NASCAR history. Petty owns 12 all by himself and shares two others.

That doesn't warrant a spot in the top five? What more do you people want?

I called on some of the experts of the racing world to help me with my struggle. To explain to me what I was missing and why His Royal Fastness hadn't even been invited to the court.

"Well, in some eyes, the longevity hurts him," said Donald Davidson, historian at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which keeps one of Petty's No. 43 STP Pontiacs on display despite the fact that he never ran a competitive lap there. "I think a lot of people discount the sheer size of his numbers because he raced for so long, like a baseball player that compiles big statistics simply because he played for a long time."

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty
RacingOne/Getty ImagesRichard Petty has a glamour shot taken before the 1971 Daytona 500. That race was one of seven 500s in which he took home the trophy.

Fair enough, but before you throw out his numbers like he is Charlie Hough, let's take a look at what kind of quality he included with his quantity. Petty won at least two races per season from 1960 to 1979 and at least one pole every year between '60 and '77. Between '62 and '77 -- a span of more than 600 starts -- his average finish was fifth! His average finish for his entire 35-year career was 11.3, including the final eight winless years.

If nothing else, his longevity adds to the impressiveness of his numbers. He raced against three generations of superstars -- from Curtis Turner and Fireball Roberts to Darrell Waltrip and Earnhardt. And he beat them all.

"The schedule was so much different back then," said Jeff Gordon, who ranks 10th on the ESPN.com list and sixth on NASCAR's all-time wins list. "They ran 50 races a season and raced two or three times a week. Maybe people think that Richard got some cheap ones in there somewhere."

Petty's greatest season -- perhaps the greatest season ever compiled by any driver in any series -- came in 1967, when he won 27 races, including 10 in a row, and 18 poles. That year, he started 48 of the season's 49 races (and, oh, by the way, posted an average finish of 2.4).

But the legend of The King was galvanized after NASCAR's "modern era" began in 1972 and the schedule was slashed to a 30-ish calendar. Four of his seven Cup titles and 56 of his wins came against the same measuring stick we still employ today. And don't even get me started on the Chase. It's the only NASCAR points system in which Petty didn't win a championship. Between 1971 and '75, NASCAR employed three scoring systems -- and The King won Cups in all three.

"For the record, I'm not one of those people that question any of his records," Gordon quickly added. "To me, you still have to get behind the wheel and drive that car. Clearly, he did that."

Thanks for the support, Jeff. At least we gave you a vote.

"I know a lot of people were always jealous of Richard," said Pearson, Petty's archrival. "Because they thought maybe he had an unfair advantage all those years with so much money coming from Chrysler."

I guess some dullards think Pearson's famous No. 21 ride wasn't being supported by Ford-Mercury. Or that Hendrick Motorsports gets no help from Chevy, or Roush Fenway never receives a phone call from Ford, or Joe Gibbs Racing never has had a conversation with the folks at Toyota. And perhaps Earnhardt's GM Goodwrench Chevy never received any technical support from, oh, I dunno … GM?

"Trust me," Pearson said with a wink. "If you're winning, you're getting support from someone."

So, what's left? Could it be that Petty's relationship with the media kept him from compiling enough support to crack the ESPN.com top five? Is he the Jim Rice of NASCAR, doomed to pay the price for his contentious ways with sportswriters and sports fans?

Mario Andretti

I think Richard set the tone for all of us. And he put the pressure on all of us. We have to be as nice as he is.

-- Mario Andretti

"Do what?!" As John Force reacted to the question, the 14-time NHRA champion nearly blew his sunglasses off his head. "You know who taught me how to deal with fans? Richard Petty. You know who taught me how to deal with the media? Richard Petty. I don't know a single racer in this country who hasn't used him as a role model. Hell, I don't know a single racer in this country who hasn't asked him for his autograph. And you know he signed it for them, because you know what he told me? 'Don't ever say no. No matter how long it takes. Without them, there's no us.'"

I placed a call to Guinness World Records and asked who holds the record for most autographs signed in the history of Earth. The gentleman I talked to said Guinness doesn't keep that record but admitted he is a huge NASCAR fan and "though it is impossible to go back and count, the general assumption is that Mr. Petty is indeed likely the holder of the mark."

"I think Richard set the tone for all of us," Mario Andretti said. "And he put the pressure on all of us. We have to be as nice as he is."

So, to recap, over the past 1,000 words, the following drivers have backed The King's cause: Jeff Gordon, David Pearson, John Force and Mario Andretti. For our last voice of support, we reach out into the afterlife. To the one stock car racer most NASCAR fans point to as the man who always should be ranked ahead of Richard Petty.

In the fall of 1999, I was having lunch with Dale Earnhardt, just a few weeks after his startling spin-and-win Bristol victory against Terry Labonte. Soon the subject turned to ESPN Classic's documentary series "SportsCentury" and its ranking of the top athletes of the 20th century. The Intimidator was particularly perturbed that no racer had cracked the top 50, while Secretariat, a horse, was ranked 36th.

"If you had to rank the all-time racers," I asked him, "where would you put yourself?"

"I don't care where you put me," he said, adding that he merely wanted to be ranked ahead of Gordon. "But I have to be behind A.J. [Foyt], Mario and Richard. There's only one King."

And that King just got robbed.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

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