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Driver vs. Driver Classic Matchups: Richard Petty vs. Dale Earnhardt

Seven Cup titles. When Richard Petty won his seventh and final championship in 1979, it was easily a feat for the record books. No other driver had more than three.

Dale Earnhardt was a rookie driver in 1979, brash and hungry but as yet unproven.

In Driver vs. Driver, we take a look into the careers of the sport’s greats and not-so greats. The rules are simple: drivers’ careers must overlap, and they must have something in common that makes comparison not only valid but also inevitable.

This month, we delve into some classic questions: Richard Petty or David Pearson? Petty or Dale Earnhardt? Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon? Gordon or Jimmie Johnson? From the pre-modern era into the 21st century, there really are no winners; that’s up to the ages to decide. But there sure are some great battles.

Earnhardt’s star was rising as the sun was setting on Petty’s storied career. Both drivers hailed from North Carolina, but that’s about where the similarities ended. Petty was already The King. Earnhardt would become The Intimidator. Earnhardt’s first title came a year after Petty’s seventh.  His seventh came 14 years later in 1994. Would he topple Petty’s record? We know now he would not, and the pair would stand as the best of all time. When Earnhardt won his seventh title, three was still the threshold for anyone not named Earnhardt or Petty. Most figured nobody else would ever touch seven.

Who ranks as the best of the first seven-time champions? Here are arguments for each from Vito Pugliese for Petty and Amy Henderson for Earnhardt.

The Intimidator comes out on top

Comparing Dale Earnhardt with Richard Petty directly isn’t a particularly accurate exercise.    Though they raced against each other more than 400 times between 1975 and 1992, with Earnhardt scoring the better finish in 274 of 415 races.  Earnhardt won 52 of those races, Petty just 15. It should be easy to claim Earnhardt as the better of the pair based on those numbers.

But that’s not why.

Earnhardt’s official rookie year was 1979. Petty was 41 at that point, in the homestretch of his storied career. He ran 769 races without Earnhardt in them and won 185 of those races. His record 200 Cup Series wins is untouchable in today’s NASCAR, and nobody came close in his NASCAR. Petty had not one, but two seasons with over 20 wins, again unheard of today.

And that’s why.

It’s next to impossible to compare drivers across eras, and that makes it that much harder to declare a winner in this battle. The numbers all point to Petty: 200 wins and 555 top fives are pretty hard to top.

So where’s Earnhardt’s edge?

Both drivers are seven-time Cup champions, something only three drivers have ever accomplished. So that’s not it, at least not only that.

No, it’s when Earnhardt did it.

All of Earnhardt’s race wins and titles came in NASCAR’s modern era. What that means is that there were fewer races per year, and all paid the same number of points. So Earnhardt put up his numbers in far fewer races in several fewer seasons. He never ran more than 34 Cup races in a season, because that’s all there were, and there weren’t that many until the last couple of years of his career.

In Earnhardt’s first championship season, 1980, he raced in all 31 races on the schedule. The smallest field he faced was 30 cars.  He won five times.

In 1964, Petty’s first title year, there were 62 races that paid points in the top series. He ran 61 of them, and won 9. Earnhardt actually had a slightly higher winning percentage. Ned Jarrett actually win 15 times in 1964, but lost the title to Petty by more than 5,000 points. No, that is not a typo. Jarrett raced 59 times; nobody ran all 62 events. But most telling of the situation might be Billy Wade, who finished fourth in points with just 35 races, while fifth and sixth-place drivers ran 50 and 59 races respectively. Also, several races ran with fields of under 20, with one race fielding just a dozen cars.

So how did that happen?

The points system prior to 1972 was structured to pay more points depending on purse money (through 1967) and later on the length of the race (1968-71). A driver could race a few marquee events and pad his points total considerably.  Running the entire schedule, or close to it, and pointing high in the bigger races was the way to win a title. A win could pay anywhere from 50-1250 points in 1964. The gap narrowed somewhat in the late 1960s, but when the deciding factor changed to distance, a win could pay anywhere from 50-150 points.

In other words, for much of Petty’s career, there were more races to post top finishes in and some races paid so many points that a good finish could make a major difference on the whole season.

Earnhardt didn’t have either advantage for any of his career. While a shorter season may have been beneficial in terms of being less grueling, it made putting together sheer numbers and titles that much more difficult. He had to race the best drivers in the series in every race, and even winning under the Latford system didn’t guarantee a huge points advantage.

Perhaps a better way of looking at Earnhardt’s and Petty’s numbers is to look at percentages. Petty’s win and top five percentages are slightly higher but Earnhardt’s top 10 average of 63.3 is higher than Petty’s 60.1. Earnhardt has a slight edge on average finish as well, though at 11.1 and 11.3 they’re virtually equal. And let’s not forget that Earnhardt’s death in 2001 came at a time when the driver was among the title favorites for that year after a resurgent 2000 season. His numbers might not have stopped where they did.

With the numbers a good bit closer than they first appear, Earnhardt’s titles give him the edge because of the way had had to win them—all under the Latford point system paying the same points for every race, all against full fields. The seasons may have been shorter and less demanding, but there was also no way to gain an advantage by running well in certain races.  It was all or nothing. ~Amy Henderson

Hail to The King

In the realm of NASCAR discussion, the greatest driver debate is one that can get a bit heated.

When it comes to The King, the arguments that often posed against him don’t hold much water when you dig into the backstory behind stats and averages. When Richard was finally allowed to go racing by his father, two-time Grand National Champion Lee Petty, Richard was only 20 years old and was far from the focus of the team. This was an era and time when they actually were racing for survival, and Richard’s car wasn’t exactly the focus of the team.

From 60-61 Petty won five races, but following the crash of his father Lee in 1961 during a qualifying race for the Daytona 500 that nearly killed him, the reigns were turned over to Richard, his brother Maurice and cousin Dale Inman. From 1962-1964 Petty won 31 races and won his first championship in 1964, placing second in 1962 and 1963. Did they run more races back then? Yes. Could everybody still enter? Yup. Did they? Nope.

So, too bad.

If you want to even things out during this period, consider that in 1965 coming off his first championship, Petty sat out the majority of the season, as part of the Chrysler boycott, and ended up going drag racing instead. NASCAR banned the 426 Hemi from competition because it wasn’t a production option engine – although about 75 or so were making it out the door as part of their drag racing program and sold as not intended for street use. That changed in 1966 when it was made a regular production option piece for both Dodge and Plymouth. Petty would win 51 races and another championship from 1966-1968, including the historic 1967 season that saw him win 27 of 48 starts, including 10 in a row.

So, for all the “purists” who carp and moan about modern NASCAR because “they ain’t stock cars like when Dale drove!” well, here – hold my STP.

In 1968 the redesigned B-Body Plymouths were about as brick-like as one could imagine, and at a distinct disadvantage to the Ford Torino. The Dodge Charger 500 was a band-aid until a winged Daytona would appear for half the Mopar brand, but Plymouth had no answer. When Plymouth told Petty he couldn’t drive a Dodge and a Hemi was good enough for him to win with, he declined and went to Ford Motor Company the next morning, and had a deal before lunchtime.

This was at the height of his dominance and similar to 1964, he was somehow being hamstrung again by corporate politics.

Juxtapose this to Dale Earnhardt, who during his most productive years had the luxury of driving for an owner who just happened to be close friends with the owner of the sanctioning body and sponsored by the largest company on the planet. Not casting aspersions on talent or records but lets be honest; Earnhardt would have only had six championships if Bill France’s buddy had truly given him the full story regarding a certain protested race in 1990. And there’s plenty of evidence confirming it.

Beyond the political, factor in the transformation that we just witnessed in the span of 10 years. From cobbled together convertibles, to what were actually fairly stock-ish production cars in the early-mid 60s, to a 700hp spaceship with a two-foot tall wing on the back for 1970 with the Plymouth Superbird – which by the way – was a road-going production car that was built specifically to get him back into a Plymouth and leave Ford.

What other driver has ever had that kind of pull or influence, ever?

This was also a period where the driver did more than just hold a steering wheel. Petty was the face of the organization, driver, mechanic, and general manager – and he got injured a lot on the job and didn’t call in sick. Perhaps more importantly, this was now a transition time for NASCAR. Gone were the 60 race seasons and dirt tracks, as the early 1970s saw the dawn of 28-30 race seasons. The so-called “modern era” officially began in 1972, as Winston came in to infuse some serious money and marketing support into the sport, is when Petty dominated. Backing up a year, from 1971-1975 Petty won 58 races, five championships and three Daytona 500s. He finished runner up in 1976 and 1977, missed out on an eighth Daytona 500 in 1976 by not clearing David Pearson coming off of turn four on the final lap.

One of the popular arguments against Petty during his late 60s-mid 70s run is “Of course he was fast, he was sponsored by Chrysler!” Fair enough. But who was funneling money into the programs of Junior Johnson, Holman-Moody, Roger Penske, Bud Moore Engineering and the Wood Brothers teams? Compare that to Earnhardt, who was sponsored by the largest company on the planet, with a car owner that was best friends with the owner of the series.

Once that has been dismissed, we move onto the “But they ran 50-60 races a year!” misnomer.

Petty really only had four seasons like that; 1962-64, and 1969. The rest were usually in the low-mid 40s until 1972. Keep in mind this was also against the foundation of the Hall of Fame – Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Ned Jarrett, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bobby Allison…some heavy hitters in there maybe? That isn’t exactly beating up on Brett Bodine or Hut Stricklin in the early 90s.

If you count just the wins from 1971-1984 when he won his final race, Petty amassed 81 wins; five more than Earnhardt in his entire career.

The money and support between the two teams and eras is also markedly different. By the mid-1970s, Chrysler wasn’t exactly killing it. Petty was campaigning a four-year old Charger, and the replacement Magnum was a brick on the big tracks in 1978. NASCAR refused to assist with any needed concessions, and they would eventually leave after that year. Chevrolet was becoming a big player in the sport and Junior Johnson’s team was making a play for dominance. It was in this big boat era of full body Montes and Cutlass Supremes, Petty won his final championship in 1979, out-dueling the next dominate driver of the era Darrell Waltrip, while the rookie of the year was none other than Dale Earnhardt.

In 1981, Petty won his seventh and final Daytona 500 – a race Earnhardt struggled to win once. In the first oval race for the new downsized bodied stockcars, Petty won in yet another generation of car. This was also the start of a tumultuous period for Petty Enterprises as his cousin and crew chief for 20 years Dale Inman was soon leaving. This also set the stage for another transition – the aero-era of the 1980s. The Thunderbird and Monte Carlo SS were the clear superior designs, while Petty was stuck with a second-tier Pontiac Grand Prix with no decklid. While his career was on a downward trend his final competitive seasons in 1986 and 1987 were stuck driving what he deemed the loosest, worst driving car of his career.

The only Pontiac to win after Petty’s 200th win in 1984 until 1988, was Rusty Wallace on a road course and a short track.

Petty defined the sport for almost four decades, won the biggest race seven times, and had to do it against David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Fred Lorenzen, and Ned Jarret. That’s pretty much all first ballot Hall of Famers, with a combined 20 championships and 509 wins, to have earned 200 wins against, as well as seven championships. Back when one race could define a career as well as a season, he won the Daytona 500 seven times. He won races during transitions from apprentice to contender, in cars that were showroom equivalents to wind tunnel science projects, legitimate boats, back to narrowed up bullets. All while being an ambassador for a regional sport that was going nationwide – with few adversaries.

Wins, championships, and records are all documented and used to keep core. Ultimately, there are only three drivers to have won seven championships, but only one will forever be known as, “The King.” ~Vito Pugliese

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