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Waid’s World: In 1986, Richard Petty’s Career Numbers Came Under Question – Part III

NASCAR has its share of historians and statisticians — almost from the first day of its existence, in fact — and they don’t always agree on the numbers or records. There have always been controversies and disagreements over facts and figures logged in the NASCAR record book, largely because of debate over the circumstances under which they were compiled.

There was, perhaps, the perfect example of this debate during the 1986 season, when it was announced that Richard Petty, easily NASCAR’s most enduring and recognizable superstar, would be making his 1,000th Winston Cup (formerly Grand National) start in the June 15 Miller American 400 at Michigan International Speedway, the 14th race of the season.

This achievement was big news. In fact, it was so big that media attention to NASCAR was nationwide instead of limited to regional coverage. Petty’s achievement was unprecedented and likely would never be equaled. In NASCAR country, primarily located in the south at the time, the coverage was widespread. It was reported and broadcast numerous times well before the Michigan race itself.

Then came the problem.

Questions arose about authenticity. Someone had run the numbers and questioned whether the start at Michigan was really Petty’s 1,000th.

From 1958 through 1982, the NASCAR record book credited Petty with 21 starts in 1959, his second year of Grand National competition. But in 1983, the number of Petty’s starts in the ’59 season was increased from 21 to 22. The change came some 24 years after Petty’s NASCAR debut. Only the number of starts was altered while his monetary winnings did not change at all.

The question was: why? Why was only the number of starts changed and nothing else? It didn’t add up.

Historians and statisticians set out to solve the mystery. They got some unexpected assistance. Petty’s longtime sponsor, STP, announced it would resolve the issue. It’s hard to imagine any of today’s team supporters becoming so involved, but the Petty-STP relationship was enduring and ironclad. It lasted decades — and included a lifetime contract for Petty.

STP’s research concluded that the missing 1959 event was a 100-mile Convertible Division race held at Daytona on February 20, 1959.

That didn’t seem to be the difference. Convertibles were not part of the Grand National circuit; they raced in their own league in 1959. Petty finished third in that race. But according to NASCAR statistics, the finish didn’t count on his Grand National record. He won $350 but that, too, did not count. Only the start counted.

No other driver in that 1959 Convertible race was credited with a Grand National start. While Shorty Rollins won the event, it was never recorded on his GN record.

Huh? It was all very illogical.

Perhaps it was all due to NASCAR’s practice of allowing cars from other circuits to participate in a Grand National race. Sometimes, Convertibles raced in what was promoted as a Grand National event. Sometimes, they were Grand American, Grand National East or Winston West competitors.

This was allowed primarily to help tracks that were coming up short on entries. But only Grand National cars could be credited with an actual victory. Others were running for their individual series points.

In this 1959 example, none of that applied. Petty raced a convertible in a Convertible Division race. No Grand National cars were entered. Yet Petty was credited with a GN start.

No matter. Ceremonies at Michigan came off without a hitch and what some believed to be Petty’s 999th start was listed as his 1,000th.

In the end, it hardly mattered. Petty retired with 1,184 career starts, tops on the all-time list and 278 more than Ricky Rudd.

Historians and statisticians — of which I am not one — might debate what happened in 1986 to this day. But many are nowhere near as vocal as they are about what happened many years earlier.

In 1971, the Myers Brothers 250 was scheduled for Aug. 6 at Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. As was NASCAR’s practice, Grand American cars were permitted to compete in the Grand National event due to a shortage of entries.

Bobby Allison, knowing that the smaller “pony” cars of the Grand American circuit would handle better than their larger counterparts, competed in a 1970 Mustang.

Allison won the race and was credited with a Grand American — not Grand National — victory.

Even though this sort of thing was a standard practice for NASCAR (at least most of the time), the argument rages to this day that Allison was robbed. His career record should show 85 wins and not 84. He won what was promoted as a Winston Cup race. He defeated all the Cup cars.

Why is he denied a victory while Petty, who drove in a Convertible race in 1959, is credited with a Grand National start?

This difference seems to be a matter of debate for some historians and statisticians. But, believe me, it is a serious matter for others — and most certainly for Allison’s many long-time fans and supporters.

1986 saw the meteoric rise of a dashing, handsome and talented star. To Be Continued …

NASCAR 1986: A STEVE WAID RETROSPECTIVE

Part I: Watkins Glen Returns

Part II: Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Collide… With Their Careers Going Two Different Directions 

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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DoninAjax

Right now NA$CAR says Bobby and Darrell are tied with 84 wins. If Bobby gets to 85 Darrell will cry himself to sleep every night and NA$CAR doesn’t like that.

Big Tex

Bobby & everyone from 1971 knew why he ran the GA car, not one of many GN cars he could’ve run. That’s why he always smiled when asked about that win. He never pressed the issue because he & everyone then knew how wins were counted, so no hard feelings. But he (AND I) love to see Darrell squirm, so this story must be repeated.

DoninAjax

Tiny Lund won two races in a CHEV Camaro and was originally denied the wins in his total. But his family persisted and he eventually got the credit. If Bobby was in a Camaro instead of a FORD Mustang he might have credit by now.

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