By Ben White
Since Daytona International Speedway opened in February of 1959, the number No. 43 has topped the winner’s chart in NASCAR’s Cup Series competition 10 times by seven-time champion Richard Petty in Plymouths, Dodges a Buick and Pontiac.
Petty won his first Daytona 500 in 1964 and carried on the tradition with his Petty blue and fluorescent red colors for additional wins in the 500 in 1966, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1979 and 1981.
Petty wasn’t finished with his winning ways at Daytona. The native of Level Cross, N.C. also logged three victories in 400-mile events held annually for decades on Independence Day weekends called the Firecracker 400. Petty won those races on July 4, 1975, July 4, 1977 and what’s is referred to as his biggest-career win on July 4, 1984 when he crossed under his 200th-career checkered flag.
Throughout his career, Petty has always been humble about his accomplishments on the track, giving his crew the accolades for his success during a career spanning 1958 through 1992 with Petty Enterprises and Curb Motorsports.
“Came up here in ’59, came through the tunnel, had a racecar hung on the back of a pickup truck,” Petty said during a press conference at DIS in 2017. “There was one little building in the infield, which was the NASCAR inspection station.
“The track - first time we saw anything with a bank like that. It looked like a wall, okay? I was a 21-year-old kid. It looked like I’d died and gone to heaven as far as the racetrack was concerned. We started out here with nothing. You see what they’ve built since then. You know, I’ve been going to the races since I was 11 years old. I drove the race car, it was a hobby. Now basically it’s a hobby. Trying to make a living out of it, too. It’s in your blood. I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t do the racing part.”
Petty’s-career victories may never be broken by any other driver. As far as Daytona, among active drivers, Denny Hamlin has the most Daytona 500 victories with three.
Petty has remarked in the past how victories at Daytona or anywhere else were never taken for granted.
“After we’d win Daytona or anywhere else, we’d go on to the next one,” Petty has said in recent years. “But you never knew if another win would come. You’d win again and hope for another one. That’s just the way it would go. Some seasons were just better than others.”
Petty’s final victory on July 4, 1984 at Daytona was witnessed by President Ronald Reagan in attendance high above the track in the press box. Before he returned to Washington, he attended a picnic reception a few hours later in the garage area along with 2,000 people. Petty and reigning Cup series champion Bobby Allison sat with the president.