The sports world is filled with records, awash with statistics that provide reference points for what has taken place. Sports records are not only historical footnotes, they serve as tools as well, formulas of a sort used to measure the greatness of a particular competitor. Despite more durable equipment, an ever-increasing influx of money being spent in the sport and a talent pool that seems to grow deeper by the year several of the sport's records have continued to stand the test of time.
There is a certain security in being Richard Petty. Because even though his race team has fallen into such disrepair it took on a corporate partner on Wednesday, even though he hasn't slid behind the wheel in a NASCAR race that mattered since 1992, the 70-year-old driving legend defined by his cowboy hat, trimmed mustache and dark sunglasses will remain, in nickname, and in historical fact, "The King."
While change in baseball allowed the most hallowed of baseball records, the lifetime home-run standard, to fall, change in racing has fortified the most sacred of NASCAR accomplishments. Athletes cannot transcend when the game does not allow.
Longer seasons, smaller ballparks, expansion and the increased use of performance-enhancing drugs helped pull down Babe Ruth's mark of 714 home runs and Hank Aaron's standard of 755. But with NASCAR's growth from a regional barnstorming spectacle where upwards of 60 sanctioned races a season could be contested, to a heavily orchestrated national major league, gone are the days when men like Petty could race multiple times a week for paycheck and glory. And gone are the days when fending off a few key rivals like Cale Yarborough, Joe Weatherly or Junior Johnson was the main obstacle besides avoiding the pitfalls of little bullrings spread throughout the South. Two hundred victories, the total Petty amassed over 35 seasons, therefore may be one of the safest records in sports. "You look at Richard's 200 wins, but that was accomplished when you could win 20-25 times in a season, and that's not going to happen anymore," said Darrell Waltrip, the modern-era wins leader with 84. "It's hard to compare apples to apples here. If you look at the numbers, you can say no one is ever going to win 200 races, but if you look at the quality of those 200 Richard won, some of them were 100-lappers, some of them were 100-milers. Sometimes he won five races in one weekend: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and he'd win all of them because he was going somewhere where no one else was."
Petty, who passed his father, Lee, as career wins leader in '67, feels no remorse for dominating most everything he undertook, though from '59 to '71 he won 140 races, contesting no fewer than 44 events a year. In '64 he raced 62 times. NASCAR's top series has not contested more than 36 events - the current amount - since '71. "Jeff [Gordon] is the active win leader now [with 81]," Petty said, "but he's not going to stay around long enough to make that work. It's percentages. They're going to have to win a bigger percentage than we did because there are fewer races and it's not likely to happen because of the competition."
Petty won 200 times in 1,185 races over 35 seasons, a 17-percent success rate. Gordon has 81 wins in 523 races over parts of 17 seasons, at 15 percent. He'd have to win at that pace until he was 55 to catch Petty.
Gordon, who turns 37 in August, is the defining driver of his generation and is just four wins from becoming the modern-era leader and third on the all-time wins list at 85. A four-time series champion, he has a better chance of catching Petty and Dale Earnhardt in that category. They each won seven.
No longer is a perfect campaign needed because of the Chase for the Championship format instituted in 2004, just a top-12 standing when the playoffs begin in the 27th race of the season. Gordon would have won a fifth title in '04 under the old points system, but missed the playoffs in '05. Gordon, who's finished outside the top 10 just twice in his previous 15 full seasons, thinks the new system gives him a title chance every year, but he's said he wouldn't stay in the sport at old age simply to chase records. "If it was doable," he said in '05. "There are a lot of ifs, ands and buts there. If we had seven championships and things are still going well ... I want to stay in this sport as long as I'm healthy and competitive and I'm enjoying what I'm doing. It has nothing to do with numbers. But if I just came off of winning seven championships, I'd probably want to go try for that eighth one."
But 200 wins and seven championships may not be the most iron-clad of records. Ricky Rudd retired at 48 in '05, having made 788 consecutive starts over 31 seasons. Most of those races encompassed a period -- beginning Jan. 11, 1981, at Riverside International Raceway -- when the understanding of driver safety was feeble or unappreciated and peril was real. All that changed with the death of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the '01 Daytona 500.
Rudd avoided injury during a violent flip at Daytona in '84 and drove despite torn ligaments in his leg after slamming the wall in the '88 all-star race. Owner Kenny Bernstein had flown him to Indianapolis, where an orthopedist began an aggressive rehabilitation program rather than following the recommendation of doctors, who advised surgery that would have cost him six weeks.
Rusty Wallace retired in '05 with a 697-race streak. Gordon is the active leader with 523 consecutive starts, putting him more than seven seasons away.
The synergy of safer race cars and drivers making their Sprint Cup debut younger would seemingly make Rudd's record attainable, but it's actually created an environment for getting in and out healthy and wealthy. Fewer successful drivers envision driving at 40. "When NASCAR first started running, drivers like Fred Lorenzen, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, they retired at 34-35 years old because that's what all the rest of the athletes did," Petty said. "Then the next crowd comes along and they all last to 40 or 50. The big crowd in the middle with Darrell, me, Earnhardt, (David) Pearson, Cale, all those guys pushed the scale up. Now the scale is going to start going downhill because in 10 years they make $50 million. So you say, 'Why should they do that?' They won't."
Over the past 55 years, 26 drivers have worn the NASCAR championship crown in what is now known as the Nextel Cup Series. Of those 26, 13 captured one title, six won the title twice, four drivers won it on three occasions, one driver is a four-time champion and only two drivers, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, scored seven championships during their careers.
Today, seven drivers with at least one championship remain active, Jeff Gordon, whose four crowns places him third on the list, turns 33 in August. And many say he has the best shot at reaching seven championships, if not more, before his career is over. "You never know," Gordon says. "I couldn't believe I won four in the amount of time I did, or especially the first three ... in 1995, '97 and '98. I mean, that was pretty fast. You're going, 'Yeah, if I can stay on that kind of pace but you know that's not going to last forever"
Gordon reached three championships in only 188 starts, wrapping up his third title with one race remaining in the '98 season. Earnhardt reached three titles in his 272nd start. Like Gordon, he claimed his third title early, two races before the end of the '87 season. Petty, on the other hand, had more than 560 career starts when he won his third title. Those numbers however are misleading — during the 1960s and until the 1972 season, the series schedule often included as many as 50 races. "I would love to do it," Gordon says. "But I just believe you've got to get to five first, then you've got to try to get to six and then just kind of see what happens. I mean, you never know. Right now, I'm honestly completely happy, I'm content with four It's allowed me to be in a category that's very prestigious, that means a lot to me, it's something that I never expected to do. It's almost like the five and six would go unnoticed. They would mean a lot to me, though."
Richard Childress, who fielded the team that helped carry Earnhardt to six of his seven titles, says winning one championship is difficult, let alone multiple titles. But, he says, Gordon is probably the driver to do it if anyone is to break the magical seven mark. "I think the seven championships is realistic for a guy like Jeff," Childress says. "After that, who knows? No. 1, you've got to get the people and the structure in place to contend for that first one. And then you've got to keep them, as well as continually improve, to maintain that level. But I would say Jeff is the next guy you'd look at. Dale and I talked about winning championships, but we never really talked about just winning the seventh. We talked about winning the eighth, the ninth. We were second in 2000 in points, I guess it was, second a couple of years there in a row. We could have easily won more."
Before he took the plunge into becoming a car owner, Ray Evernham was considered one of the sport's top crew chiefs. He helped groom and develop Gordon for Hendrick Motorsports and served as Gordon's crew chief during his first three championship seasons. "I still feel like our first championship we won, we really weren't ready to win it," Evernham says of the 1995 title. "And that kind of messed us up a little bit. The next year I feel like we should have won it. And we didn't because of some mechanical problems. But '97-98, we were able to back-to-back it."
Sustaining that level of competition, however, is not only difficult because of the changes in technology that come about as the sport continues to evolve, but it can be emotionally draining on a team as well. "I think one of the things that hurts the most is ... you've got to remember we were so dominant, that I felt like if you went to the race track and you came home third, everybody was looking at you like, 'What happened?,'" Evernham says. "So that puts a lot of pressure on you, too. It's tough, it's a lot keeping that deal together. It's a lot more than people think. You've got other people trying to steal your guys, your guys are getting burned out, you've got to stay ahead of technology with the car ... from a driver standpoint, he's got to be on every lap because so much is expected of him, and yet there are so many demands on them. The mental part of it is very difficult. I really think that that's why in any professional sport, you see people in cycles, three- and four-year runs. There are teams that have those 3-4 year runs, and some that have 10-year cycles where they are probably average. But nobody's winning championships 10 years in a row"
After winning back-to-back titles in 1962-63, Joe Weatherly was just beginning his pursuit of a third consecutive championship when he was killed early in 1964 in a race at Riverside, Calif. Eight drivers have won consecutive titles, but only Cale Yarborough (1976-78) has enjoyed three straight championships. And it's been 25 years since he accomplished the feat. Four drivers nearly managed similar results but came up empty - Buck Baker, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip finished second after winning back-to-back titles.
The rigors of contending for a championship can exact a toll on a team. While competitors often talk about carrying momentum over from one season to the next, talking about such an effort is the easy part. Making it happen is much tougher. Especially today, when keeping teams together is not easy
Still, sometimes it's those types of changes that can help fuel a team, a bit of new blood that hopes to carry on past traditions. "It takes a lot out of people, it really does," says Evernham. "If you're going to win three or four championships in today's competition, you've got to have a lot of depth. No matter what, the human element still plays a big part in that. And what happens to your mindset or your psyche over a 3-or 4-year stretch ... it's very intense when you're in a championship battle. And that has a tendency to put a lot of pressure, a lot of burnout on people. I think once you get your equipment and you've got your talent, how can you keep it together for that 4-5 year stretch to win three championships in a row? I'm not saying it's Impossible, but it's going to be difficult."
Childress saw Earnhardt miss the three-peat on two occasions — in 1988 he finished third and in '92 he wound up 12th. "That's the toughest thing today, keeping everyone together," Childress says. "Getting people to realize that the crews, the drivers - you have somebody deciding that they want to go try something different. Or they get bought away or whatever. What it does, it ends up just totally upsetting the racing. That's why I say you've got to get your people aligned, you've got to get your team aligned, your driver, everything has to be in that focus."
Career Wins is perhaps the most secure mark in NASCAR's growing record book, Richard Petty's 200 career wins hasn't just stood the test of time, it's never even been challenged. And with changes in the sport, such as the reduction in the number of races on the schedule, it's unlikely that it ever will be challenged.
Only two active drivers have 50 or more career wins - Gordon and Rusty Wallace, And even they admit Petty's career-win record is likely secure. The modern-era record, held by Waltrip, appears to he within reach, however: "Never," Gordon says of Petty's total. "I think if you look at one, the competition always gets tougher and tougher every year Which makes it harder: two, the schedule - we're racing 36 points races a year, and they raced a lot more. I think as the sport has grown, careers have gotten shorter. I think you'll really start to see more of that in the next 10 years. Where people aren't in the sport nearly as long as they used to be. Two hundred wins, I think everybody realizes that's not even doable, so there's no use sticking around trying."
Childress says the mark is "one record that you won't see broken. Richard was a great race driver," he says, "and always will be in my opinion." Ryan Newman, who has nine career wins, including eight in 2003, agrees that the competitiveness of the sport today, and the number of races, stifle anyone's chances at reaching the 200-win plateau. But should NASCAR decide to return to a much busier schedule — running one- and two-day shows — Newman says he wouldn't object. "If they had two-day events or one day events that would be fun. I wouldn't mind doing 50 one-day events, to be honest. Nothing against that. But us spending three days at one track wasting so much time during the weekend, it's drivers on one end, bad on another"
Even Petty himself admits such a mark will be hard to erase. "The sport's just so much more technical now" he says. "It's not an individual sport like it used to be. If you had a drivers crew chief, a drivers driver and put those guys together; you had a pretty drivers combination. Now, that's just two parts of the whole wheel. You've got to have engineers, you've got to have all the other stuff put together. It just gets more complicated just because It's more technical."
Single-Season Wins is another mark that, because of changes in the season's schedule, likely won't be rewritten, 27, Richard Petty (1967). The modern-era record is another matter, however Gordon has already equaled Petty's 13 wins, and twice he's won 10 races in a season. "I think I won 13 races in a 28-race season," Petty says. "It took Gordon 32 or 33 races. Now they've got 36 chances at it if you win half the races, you're there. But it's just so hard right now, the way the system is, the way the cars all run. Track position and all that stuff just makes it tougher and tougher to win."
Tougher, but clearly not impossible. "I think it's still attainable," Newman says. "You have to have a heck of a season, one like Jeff had in 1998 when he did it. But, yeah, it's still attainable. When you're racing 36 times a year, you can still win 13 of them."
When Petty won 27 times during the 1967 season, the schedule consisted of 49 races. So Petty won, roughly, 55 percent of the events. And it was during that run that he put together another impressive mark, winning 10 consecutive races. From Aug. 12, when he won at Bowman Gray, though the fall event at North Wilkesboro, Petty was unstoppable.
Seven drivers (Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant, Bill Elliott, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon) have won four consecutive races during the modern era, but only two — Mark Martin and Gordon — will be competing full-time from now on. Martin managed the feat in 1993, winning on perhaps the most diverse tracks on the circuit — the road course at Watkins Glen, Michigan's wide-open, 2-mile oval, the tight confines of tiny Bristol and rugged Darlington Raceway
Gordon strung together four straight during his 1998 campaign, winning at Pocono, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen and Michigan. "Every team out here is so capable today," Gordon says, "and you are going from tracks where you might be racing on a half-mile one weekend, a superspeedway the next. So yeah, I think it's especially tough to put together any sort of streak today. But it seems like when a team gets on a roll, It can seem like everything is going their way and it can be pretty tough to stop them."
Qualifying may or may not take on added meaning in the future, depending on whether NASCAR rewrites the points system to award bonus points for where a team lands in the lineup. If such changes come, then you can bet teams will start putting even more emphasis on those one- and two-lap Jaunts that currently have little if any effect on the outcome of a race.
Averaging five poles a season ... not an impossible task ... over the course of a 20-year career would put any driver within reach of Petty's career record (126). Matching, or breaking the all-time single-season mark of 20 held by Bobby Isaac (1969) might be a bit more difficult. And while three drivers (Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Bill Elliott) share the record for consecutive poles (5), it's a feat that hasn't been accomplished since Bill Elliott turned the trick in 1985.
The modern-era mark for career poles — Darrell Waltrip holds the record with 59 — isn't as rock solid. Three full-time drivers are already among the top 10 of all time — Rusty Wallace (36), Mark Martin (41) and Gordon (46). Bill Elliott, despite cutting back on his schedule, needs only four poles to tie Waltrip's mark.
Just don't forget the younger drivers who are beginning to make their mark in the sport. Newman, for instance, led the series the 2003 season with 11 No. 1 qualifying runs. Records, he says, are kept for a reason. And he'd be happy to be the one to establish a new mark. Qualifying isn't taken for granted in the Penske camp, a fact Newman's team proved in '03. "Poles, I look at those just like wins," he says. "They're the same when it comes to wins and records. You'd be surprised how much preparation goes into qualifying. We put in a whole lot of effort in all aspects. We're here to try and win everything. Whether it's Track records, most wins, most poles, most laps led. Whatever it is."
With the advent of the restrictor plate, qualifying speeds have taken a nosedive at Daytona and Talladega, the two tracks where NASCAR tries to slow the pace of the race. As a result, Elliott's mark of 212.809 mph (1987) is likely in the books for drivers. (The restrictor-plate record of 199.388 mph, is also held by Bill Elliot (1990).)
Not that some drivers wouldn't mind taking the plates off and giving it a shot. "I would love to beat that one," Gordon says, "but that's up to NASCAR. If they took the restrictor plates off, we'd blowing 212 away." Under race conditions, though, he'd just as soon see them continue to be a part of the sport. "Just for fun, one time. Or maybe just for qualifying," he says of taking the plates off. "But not in the race. I think it would be way too dangerous. [Yes, I'm sure it would be way to dangerous for Jeffie. HEJII] I think we all realize that we can put on a great race at 190 mph. It seems to me like, if anything, we drop the numbers down and keep the racing close and tight and exciting, and keep the cars safer by keeping it down. It seems like every time we start getting over 190 and into the mid-190s, they start thinking about things they can do to get the speeds back down."
Removing the plates, Newman says, would likely provide "some really hairy racing. But I'd like to try it just to see what it would be like. I think it would be cool if we could do that." [Any racer would. HEJII] Although he came to the sport long after the implementation of the plates, Newman's gone plenty fast before. "Oh yeah. I went 213 mph in an IRL car at Texas in l998. But anybody could have done it ... It didn't feel any different than our speeds."
Elliott says the 212-mph qualifying lap "wasn't that different," but says he hasn't forgotten how dangerous the sport was not that long ago. And qualifying he says, could be just as dangerous as the actual race, given the climbing speeds on the race track. Earlier in 1987, Elliott won the pole for the Daytona 500 with a lap of 210.364 mph. It was that lap, he says, that got his attention. "I still think that 210 is my most Impressive deal," he says. Even though it was two mph slower? "Man, I tell you what," Elliott says, "what a ride. It was ... it's like I said when I left pit road, I didn't know if I was coming back."
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