In My Opinion | David J. Neal

David J. Neal: Secure in status, Richard Petty won’t pick greatest driver but admires Jimmie Johnson’s poise

Richard Petty speaks to the media at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead on Nov. 15, 2013.
Richard Petty speaks to the media at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead on Nov. 15, 2013.
David J. Neal / Miami Herald Staff

The King, winner of more NASCAR races than any other driver, NASCAR’s greatest ambassador whose dominance and media savvy pushed stock car racing to mainstream notice, descended from the podium to the questions that come with the throne.

Then again, Richard Petty always has been good at noblesse oblige, especially with the media.

So after announcing Petty Racing Enterprises’ 2014 marketing deal with the “Fresh From Florida” campaign, he entered the media scrum to discuss Jimmie Johnson.

Petty won 200 races and seven titles in what’s now called the Sprint Cup series. The late Dale Earnhardt won seven titles in that series. If Jimmie Johnson finishes 23rd or better Sunday in the Ford EcoBoost 400, he will have his sixth with time left for his seventh. Petty figures Johnson will get No. 6 Sunday unless “one of those sink holes” gets him.

So what does he think of Johnson possibly catching him or passing him? What does he think of Johnson? And, of course, the big one, who’s the greatest NASCAR driver of all time?

It’s a hat trick of questions that often causes the sports gods of yore to come off as bitterly moored in the past or unctuously gracious about the present. Petty handled it like a Turn 1 wreck he saw happen as he came off Turn 4.

“So?” Petty said about Johnson possibly passing him and Earnhardt.

“All I can say is Earnhardt done his thing in his time against his competition,” Petty said. “I did mine against my competition. And he’s doing his against his competition. We didn’t compete with each other.

“He wasn’t there to race against Richard Petty or Earnhardt. And we didn’t have to race against Jimmie Johnson, either. It’s not apples to apples. It’s apples to oranges.”

Not that Petty doesn’t see similarities between them. He believes Johnson has a chance for eight or more titles because he sees Hendrick Racing as the only team matching the long-term success Petty Enterprises had from the early 1960s through the early 1980s.

Within those teams, as NASCAR president Mike Helton noted earlier, perhaps the only parallel to the coordination of Johnson with crew chief Chad Knauss would be Petty with Dale Inman.

“You’ve got to have that,” Petty said. “In football, if the linemen don’t like the quarterback, he just gets out of the way and somebody bops him.”

Petty laughed. “This is the kind of deal that everybody has to be on the same page. And it’s not just the crew chief. It’s the whole team from the time they even think about racing to getting it on the race track. I always looked at the racing operation as probably the biggest team there is. To win a race takes more people than it takes to win a football game or a baseball game.”

Which is why Petty isn’t being critical of Johnson when he says, “I look at Jimmie just like I look back at Richard Petty — without the equipment, he’s just another driver. It’s the combination that helps put him up there. Without a super good car, there wouldn’t have been a Richard Petty.”

Petty doesn’t know Johnson much personally. But he knows what he sees on the track.

“Jimmie is pretty cool about handling different circumstances, although most of the time he’s handling it from the front,” Petty chuckled. “Even when he gets in the back, he’s very conscious of what’s going on and can race with people without getting overaggressive. He knows his ability and the ability of his car. If he’s having trouble or he’s running and he’s got a fifth-place car, then he settles for fifth place and moves on down the road.

“He knows he’s pretty good, he knows his car’s pretty good, so a lot of times, he doesn’t overpush the circumstances to get better than what he knows he’s already got. Not that he just says, ‘OK, I’m running third, that’s good enough.’ He just doesn’t put himself out in the situation where he takes chances. A 50-50 chance he won’t take. [A 75-25 chance] he will take.”

As far as who’s the greatest, Petty said, “I could care less.

“All the people in all the history of NASCAR, nobody ever told you that Richard Petty was a good driver. Er, one of the best or the best driver. All I want to be remembered as is I won more than anybody else. As far as I’m concerned, whether I could drive or not doesn’t make any difference.”

Behind his trademark sunglasses and skinny cowboy hat, Petty laughed again, clearly secure in his place. That’s the only way one king accepts that there’s room for three kings.

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