If drivers have vote, it's King Dale, not King Richard

October 30, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

Now that Dale Earnhardt has tied Winston Cup stock car racing's king, Richard Petty, with seven championships, it's only natural comparisons be made.

Is Earnhardt as good as Petty?

"I think Dale's way ahead of Richard Petty," said David Pearson, who won three championships and 105 races. "Richard is my friend and I enjoyed racing him. I'm not putting him down. But it took Richard 40 years -- well, almost -- to win those titles, and from Day One Richard was in a factory car, with all the money, when most everyone else had nothing. Dale's done it in half the time. Richard's good, but I can't compare him to Earnhardt."

That, of course, is subjective.

In a sport that Petty carried on his shoulders from the backwoods to the big time, it is also "controversial" in Rusty Wallace's opinion.

"Richard Petty is a great guy," said Wallace. "You have to give him his due. But I honestly think Dale Earnhardt is winning against competition that's three or four times greater than it was back when Richard raced."

When Petty won his seventh title in 1979, a 28-year-old named Dale Earnhardt was named Rookie of the Year. No one thought then that the son of a dirt-track racing legend named Ralph Earnhardt would match Petty's record.

"I remember watching him run Will Concrite's car when he first started out in Winston Cup," said Buddy Baker, a 19-time Winston Cup race winner who now does television commentary.

"Dale turned it over in the flat down there at Atlanta," Baker said. "It must have rolled seven or eight times. I had always been a good judge of who was going to make it and not make it, and I said that afternoon, 'If that boy there makes it, the woods are full of 'em.' And the woods, apparently, are full of 'em because I tell you what, no one has done as good as him driving a race car as I ever remember."

Earnhardt has beaten the odds.

As Pearson said, when Petty was winning his championships he had everything on his side. No one thought anyone would match the achievement because, with the arrival of Corporate America to NASCAR races, came balanced competition. Millions are spent yearly to make sure no one team dominates the way Petty dominated in the early days.

But 15 years after Petty won his thought-to-be untouchable seventh title, Earnhardt has matched it.

And Ned Jarrett, who won his two titles in 1961 and 1965 and who saw Petty at his best, says Earnhardt is better than any man who's ever driven a stock car.

"In my opinion, Dale is the best pure racer I've ever seen," said Jarrett. "He's the only driver I've ever watched who I feel was actually born a race car driver."

Earnhardt, who will be racing today in the Slick 50 500 in Phoenix, of course, demurs.

"I can't even begin to take in what they're saying," Earnhardt said. "It almost dumbfounds me, sends cold chills down my spine when people say things like that. I mean, I'm comfortable with who I am in the race car, and I have a lot of confidence, but in my own mind, I'm still trying to prove myself. I'm still going wholeheartedly at it. I can't stop and I can't take in what David and Ned are saying.

"Richard got us here. He's the king."

Petty voices no resentment at Earnhardt's achievement. In fact, he says, "Richard Petty is enjoying" it.

"I haven't been out there on the track racing for two years, so people don't hear my name as much," he said. "Now, with Dale [tying] my record, my name gets mentioned every time his does. It's good for me. And next year, when he's trying to break my record, they'll be saying my name again then, too."

As for the comparisons, Petty says they make no sense.

"All I can tell you is I did my thing in my time and he's doing his thing in his time," Petty said. "There is no comparing one against the other. The circumstances are different. You can say it's better or worse or whatever, but it doesn't make any difference. I competed against the people that I did in my time, who were there to compete against, and he's competing against the ones here now.

"Earnhardt is No. 1 now, like Cale [Yarborough] was 10 years ago and Pearson and I were 20 years ago, and Fireball Roberts and Lee Petty were before us. There is no way to compare any of us."

But then, Petty did a little comparing.

"When I read what people say in the paper, they always write, 'Richard Petty, who won seven championships, 200 races and seven Daytona 500s,' " he said. "That's what people say. When they look at Dale, they say seven championships and that's it, you know what I mean. There's no one thing about my career.

"I'm the whole book. What I mean is, I ran more races, fell out of more races, crashed more. I did more. In that light, everything is different."

And certainly a lot of men racing now didn't compete against Petty in his prime. But they know what they're up against today in Earnhardt.

"You can't take anything away from Petty," said driver Derrike Cope, who has at least one achievement Earnhardt doesn't, a Daytona 500 victory. "But what Earnhardt has done is staggering.

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