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Petty reflects on history he wrote

It was only two laps, yet it has stretched into three decades and perhaps even into infinity.

Five miles is two laps in the Daytona 500, which is about how far Richard Petty got in his first practice at Daytona International Speedway in 1959 before he was black-flagged (ordered off the track).

"(The speedway) looked humongous. It looked like it was as big as the whole state of North Carolina," said Petty, 54, a native of Level Cross, N.C. "They got us all together and said "Hey, guys, it's a brand new track, nobody has ever run on it, so we want everybody to go out and run on the flat (the low side) for three or four laps, just to look at the track.'

"I went out, went through the flat in the first corner and went up on the bank in the second corner and they black-flagged me. A 21-year-old kid that had come in and never seen something so big and then be able to go out there and run was just unreal."

In the 33 years since, Petty and the Daytona 500 have become permanently intertwined, sort of like Reggie Jackson and October. It's hard to talk about one without mentioning the other.

And even though Sunday's 34th annual Daytona 500 will be Petty's last, folks will be talking about Petty and this 500-mile race long after he settles into his next career as a racing team owner. Daytona identifies Petty as unmistakably as the many swirls in his autograph and the feather-spiked cowboy hat and black sunglasses that he wears nearly everywhere.

"When you think of Richard Petty, you probably think of his Daytona 500 wins (a record seven) more than anything else," said NASCAR official Chip Williams. "I'm not saying that's the greatest thing he's ever done, but he's more known for that."

Little did wide-eyed young Petty know that massive yet mostly barren speedway he found so awesome would become his fast track to greatness.

Count them: 1964, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1979, 1981. Nobody has won more Daytona 500s (the retired Cale Yarborough is next with four) and only a few athletes _ Martina Navratilova and her nine Wimbledons, for one _ have conquered their sport's most treasured event more times.

Funny thing is, the most memorable of Petty's Daytona 500s was one he didn't win. It was the 1976 race, perhaps the greatest stock-car race in history.

Petty and rival David Pearson, running first and second, tangled coming out of Turn 4 on the last lap and both hit the wall. Petty's mangled Pontiac slid through the grassy area in front of the grandstands and stalled. Pearson's Mercury also was badly damaged, but he managed to keep his foot on the clutch and thus kept his car running and limped across the finish line at 35 mph for the win.

"That was the most dramatic as far as I was concerned," Petty said. "David wound up winning the race, but it was still dramatic for me."

Then there was the 1979 Daytona 500, a victory that fell into Petty's lap. Petty was a distant third behind Yarborough and Donnie Allison when the two front-runners crashed on the last lap. They got out of their battered cars and duked it out in the infield.

Meanwhile, Petty motored around to win his sixth, and by far his most improbable, 500.

There were other memorable moments, but Petty said, "We've been fortunate we've won so many Daytona 500s (that) they get diluted over time."

We all should have such problems.

"He understood the technique of drafting, I think, better than anyone," said retired driver Benny Parsons, now a racing television commentator. "He learned it very quickly. He had to because back then he was working with very inferior equipment."

There are a few Daytona 500s, though, that Petty would probably rather forget. One was the 1988 race when Petty's No. 43 Pontiac spun in front of A.J. Foyt and Phil Barkdoll, went airborne, and rolled end over end down the track. The car was completely destroyed, but Petty miraculously sustained only minor injuries.

And in a 1961 qualifying race for the Daytona 500, Petty's blue Plymouth plowed over a high banking and dropped some four stories to the ground. Again, he walked away without serious injuries.

More recently, Petty's annual trips here for NASCAR's season-opening event have been more painful emotionally than physically. The "King" hasn't won this race in 10 years. Hasn't even come close.

Still, one week after watching Earvin "Magic" Johnson write the sweetest of farewells by earning MVP honors in what was likely to be his last NBA All-Star game, those with sentimental hearts can't help but dream of the same kind of finish for Petty.

Petty didn't do anything to diminish those hopes when he turned the ninth-fastest qualifying time of the day on Sunday, which earned him the third-row starting position in one of the two 125-mile races today that determine the field for Sunday's 500.

"We've come down here and won races when we've been fast and won races when we haven't been so fast. We've lost them both ways, too, so you don't really know (how you'll do)," Petty said. "Maybe this year it will be us. The one thing on our side is that we have done good here before. Maybe that makes our chances of doing good here a little bit better."

Although he's been bombarded with questions about his self-titled Fan Appreciation Tour since he hit Daytona three weeks ago, Petty hasn't allowed the significance of this last Daytona 500 get to him _ at least not yet.

"I might think about it being the last Daytona 500, but not now," Petty said. "I don't think I'll be that emotional about any of it."

Regardless of how things turn out Sunday, Petty said, with all due respect to Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman and A.J. Foyt, this unquestionably will be his final Daytona 500.

"When I made my announcement (to retire after this season), I knew whether I wanted to or not, that I had made a commitment to everybody," Petty said. "So when I say I'm going to quit, I'm going to quit. What I tell you, you can pretty well bank on."

SPEEDWEEKS

Today: Twin 125s.

Friday: International Race of Champions and Florida 200 Dash.

Saturday: Goody's 300.

Sunday: Daytona 500.

Details, 8C

TODAY'S RACES

What: Twin 125 qualifying races for the Daytona 500.

Where: 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach.

When: 12:30 p.m.

Pole sitters: Sterling Marlin and Bill Elliott.

Lineups: 11C.

Defending champs: Davey Allison and Dale Earnhardt.

Notes: These are two 125-mile (50-lap) races. The top 14 finishers from each race will qualify for Sunday's Daytona 500, not including pole-sitters Marlin and Elliott, who earned front-row spots for the 500 in qualifying last Sunday. Ten drivers who don't qualify in the races today will be added to the field based on qualifying speeds from Sunday and Monday.

Remaining schedule: Friday _ International Race of Champions and Florida 200 Dash series race. Saturday _ Goody's 300 Busch Grand National race. Sunday _ Daytona 500.

Tickets: (904) 253-7223.

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