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Petty's last lap to retirement starts today Race legend is making 34th year his final one

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It's one last time around for Richard Petty, the 54-year-old who has announced that this, his 34th year in Winston Cup stock car racing, will be his last.

Richard Petty's last year.

Richard Petty's last Daytona 500.

It seems as if he has been around the sport forever, chasing the checkered flag, which he has caught 200 times in a career that reaches back to 1958 and into a different era.

He was a teen-ager in a sport in which his daddy, Lee, was a star. It was a sport that grew up in the backwoods of North Carolina, created by moonshine runners on back roads where "revenuers" were the major challengers.

It was rough-and-tumble, and in those days no one could have imagined that Lee Petty's son would wind up winning seven Daytona 500s and seven Winston Cup Championships.

He never ran moonshine, but he can remember some great drag races on Highway 220 in Randleman County against boyhood friends.

"Daddy has a rap sheet this long," says Richard's son Kyle, holding his hands as far apart as possible. "Can you believe it? He's gotten a million speeding tickets, and now the governor is naming that stretch of highway after him."

L And now, Richard Petty has come to the beginning of the end.

He says he doesn't really know how he feels about this season. He says when he gets in the car today, he probably will be emotional. After all, it will be Richard Petty's last Daytona 500.

And it will be special.

When the field of 42 cars lines up for the start of the 34th annual Daytona 500 at noon, Petty will be sitting in his famous No. 43 STP Pontiac in the 16th row, 32nd position. But this time he won't have to wait for a corporate official on the flag stand to yell, "Gentlemen, start your engines!"

This time, it is Petty, grand marshal for this race, who will give the call, from a microphone inside his car, to fire the motors. It will be the first time a driver in a NASCAR race has had the honor.

Petty says the idea to retire did not come quickly. It wasn't like flipping the ignition switch on an engine and getting an instant response. It was slower than that, more like a 500-mile race, in which the action builds toward a finish.

Petty says he began to think about retirement in 1988, after he had taken one of the wildest rides in Daytona 500 history.

He came out of Turn 4 on the 2.5-mile oval and his car began an end-over-end flip and roll. The car crashed into the protecting wall in front of the main grandstand and then was "T-boned" on the driver's side by an oncoming car.

Not a sound could be heard from the stunned crowd of close to 200,000. A sidelong glace revealed stunned, ashen faces and silent tears. In the press box, an unholy place, not one joke broke the tension. Everyone who dared think thought Richard Petty was dead.

"It's funny," Petty says now. "But every accident I ever had was worse than the one before, and I always kind of thought they couldn't get no worse. I told Lynda [his wife] once, 'When I stop having fun at this, I'll quit.' When I opened my eyes in that hospital room and looked up into her face, all she said was, 'Are we having fun now?' It started me thinking."

As it turned out, he suffered only a sprained ankle.

Unlike A.J. Foyt, who announced last season would be his last but is having second thoughts, Petty seems genuinely comfortable with his decision, say those closest to him.

Maybe it is because he has had enough pain to last a lifetime: In addition to countless concussions, both shoulders, all his ribs, both knees, both feet have been broken and his back has been dislocated. On top of that, there have been numerous stomach problems, and he wears hearing aids.

But he is still in one piece, and that's how Lynda Petty wants to keep him.

"This will be the longest racing season I've ever lived through," she says. "It's like, you believe the end is almost there and yet, you're anticipating it so much, you don't want anything to happen. And I just have to pray everyday and keep my faith, like I always have. God's taken care of us for 30-some years now. So I'm just going to hang in here and see what happens.

"Richard knows we've stood beside him all these years, and now it has to come to an end."

It is not as hard for Kyle, who races against his father on Sundays.

"He was racing when I was born," says Kyle, 31. "He's raced all my life. I never thought about him retiring, but you knew it was inevitable. I don't know how I feel about it. It's new. This Daytona 500 is a big, emotional deal, because it's the last one.

"But Daddy's ready to do this. He's made peace with it in his mind. He was never happy about it before, but he is now. He told me once people have been asking him since 1967, when he won all those races [27 in one season], when he was going to retire. It's a long time to be bugged about retiring."

Richard Petty has won 200 races, starting in 1960 with an $800 payday in Charlotte, N.C. But he hasn't won since July 4, 1984, in the Firecracker 400.

"I think God meant for me to have 25 years of good luck, and I've tried to stretch it," Petty says. "Age has sort of had its way with me. I drive a whole lot less aggressive than I used to. Now I find myself thinking about it, instead of just doing it."

That doesn't mean Petty thinks he can't win again. Since his last victory, he says, 10 or 12 drivers who never had won before or since have "lucked into" a victory.

"It's been eight years since I won a race," he reasons. "That's 29 times eight, that's 232 races. I ought to be lucky enough to win one. When you consider all the other ways I've won, you'd think I could manage just one more with nothing but luck. And that's the category I'm in right now."

Petty would have everyone believe he has no ego. And, perhaps, given all his success, it isn't as big as someone else's might be. But five-time and defending Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, who is chasing Petty's seven Winston Cup championships, says there is one place he doesn't want to be today or any Sunday this season.

"I do not want to be in front of Richard on the last lap if he's running second," Earnhardt said. "Richard has never lost his competitiveness. If we're 1-2, I'm not going to back off and let him win, but if he's that close, he'll find a way to win."

But Richard Petty is a realist. After 34 years in a profession, it is hard to avoid realism, even if you are called "The King."

"I'd just like to have a good, respectable year," says Petty from under his cowboy hat. "I'd like to win a race. I'd like to win the Daytona 500, sure I would. But most of all, I'd just like to show we're not just out here to finish a career."

The Petty file

* Richard Petty will start in 16th row, 32nd position.

* His first victory came Feb. 28, 1960 at Charlotte, N.C., and he earned $800. It was his third NASCAR season and the 36th race of his career.

* The very first race he ran was July 18, 1958, in Toronto. From there it was on to Buffalo, N.Y., and Belman, N.J., before finally running in the south, at Winston-Salem, N.C.

Yearly earnings

1958.. .. .. $760

1959.. .. .$7,730

1960.. .. $35,180

1961.. .. $22,696

1962.. .. $52,885

1963.. .. $47,765

1964.. .. $98,810-x

1965.. .. $16,450

1966.. .. $79,930

1967.. . $130,275-xy

1968.. .. $89,103

1969.. ..$109,180

1970.. ..$138,969

1971.. ..$309,225-xz

1972.. ..$227,015-x

1973.. ..$159,655

1974.. ..$299,175-x

1975.. ..$378,865-x

1976.. ..$338,265

1977.. ..$345,886

1978.. ..$215,491

1979.. ..$531,292-x

1980.. ..$374,092

1981.. ..$389,214

1982.. ..$453,832

1983.. ..$389,060

1984.. ..$251,226

1985.. ..$294,872

1986.. ..$280,657

1987.. ..$468,602

1988.. ..$190,155

1989.. ..$117,480

1990.. ..$158,265

1991.. ..$267,035

x--Championship seasons.

y--A career and NASCAR single season win record of 27 victories.

z--Became first Winston Cup driver to have career earnings over $1 million.

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