Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 stock car race for the seventh time today, and not because he had the fastest car."We couldn't outrun 'em and they couldn't outrun us," he said. "So we outthunk 'em at the end."
With only 30 of 200 left in the $780,000 race, Petty was running fourth behind Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker and Dale Earnhardt. But on their last pit stops about then, the three front-runners took about 18 seconds each, taking on fuel and, as is routine, changing two tires.
Petty did the unusual. He didn't bother with new tires. He stopped only for gas, and he stopped only eight seconds. The difference of 10 seconds moved Petty from fourth to first with 25 laps left at the 2 1/2-mile Daytona International Speedway. Petty quickly built a 10-second lead, which at 190 miles per hour translates to a margin of nearly 3,000 feet.
"We knew the tires would be no problem at all," Petty said, speaking for his crew chief, Dale Inman. "After five or six laps, all the new has gone off the tires anyhow. Then everybody runs the same. So Dale had it all planned out good. We knew we could go the rest of the way on them tires." a
If the Petty team knew it, why didn't Allison, Baker and Earnhardt?
Why didn't they stop only for gas, too? Why fiddle around changing tires that don't need changed?
"They didn't figure enough," Petty said with a cat-ate-the-whole-flock-of-canaries smile.
Petty's victory then was assured, unless an accident brought out the caution flag, enabling the slow thunkers to move right up on Petty's bumper and engage him in a sprint to the checkered flag. When the race continued safely -- only two cars so much as scraped a wall today, and no one was hurt -- Petty slowed down the last two laps and yet won a $90,575 first prize by a margin of four seconds over Allison.
Ricky Rudd, 24, finished third, just ahead of Baker and Earnhardt. No one else finished the 200 laps.
So at an average speed of 169.651 mph, the second-fastest Daytona 500 ever, Richard Petty, 43, of Randleman, N.C., won his game's Super Bowl for a seventh time when only one other driver, Cale Yarborough, has won it twice. First winning here in 1964, Petty now has won in three decades.
Seven times the national stock car driving champion, Petty won only two of 31 races last season. As they had in 1978, when Petty won not a single race, experts foresaw King Richard's abdiction. Petty won the Daytona 500 in '79, proving those experts slow thunkers also, and now he has done it again, and done it sensationally on a day when the slightest slip of car or mind could have been telling.
"It was terrible, terrible squirrelly out there," Petty said. With the cars two feet shorter this year, they never rolled smoothly. At 190 mph, they skated as if on ice, particularly when caught in the swirling winds created by other cars.
"But all the drivers done super good today," Petty said. "They didn't take the chances today they normally take. They knew the cars were weird. They were real weird. Yet there weren't any accidents to speak of. That's because everybody knew that if the cars took off today, they'd bust their butts. So it was a good, safe race."
The fastest qualifier at over 194 mph, Allison was the favorite today because his Pontiac LeMans with its sloping rear window seemed best suited aerodynamically. He led 117 laps. The evidence of the early proceedings suggested that Allison was much the best of the 42 racers along Daytona's 3,000-foot-long back straightaway.
Whatever advantage Allison lost in the 31-degree banked turns, he regained in that long straight flight down the back side. When another hotfoot, Darrell Waltrip, went out at lap 117 with a broken engine, he said, "Bobby is just toying with us."
Allison and Neil Bonnett traded the lead for an hour before Bonnett quit on lap 123, his clutch torn apart. Most of the rest of the way, the race belonged to a five-car pack of Allison, Baker, Rudd, Earnhardt and Petty.
At lap 173, Allison made his last pit stop. Seeing the leader off the track, Baker and Earnhardt stopped, too.
It was the routine thing to do.
Everyone picked up gas and changed right-side rubber.
Business as usual.
Petty didn't win 192 races in 23 seasons by conducting routine business as usual.
When a bunch of front-runners have to make pit stops at nearly the same time, Petty said, "We sit there and let them stop first and see what they do and then we do what we do."
Petty means that he'll stay out on the track and let them other cats stop first, so they can't see what he does and thereby get a smart idea that them cats wouldn't have thunk of on their own.
Allison, meanwhile, had run out of gas before that last pit stop, complicating his life immensely. He had to coast the last mile to his pit, losing valuable seconds.
"The car was really strong," Allison said. "But we ran out of gas and got behind and never caught up again."
Allison had been playing a mind game with Petty. He wanted Petty to make the first move toward a pit stop. But Allison's gamble failed when the gas gauge moved to E. Petty's gamble succeeded.
Any last words about this week, Bobby? This week when everybody accused you of having built an illegal car, the only slope-backed LeMans in the field? What did you think when everybody said you should win this thing by a hundred miles?
"Everybody was accusing me of sandbagging all week," Allison said. "Well, they better look for somebody else now. They better look for the No. 1 sandbagger of all time."
Richard Petty, the accused, only smiled at the indictment and said, "When the time come, we run."