BRISTOL, Tenn. — Richard Petty is about to give up his title.
The seven-time NASCAR champion is still “The King of Stock Car Racing,” but his status as the last driver to win a Cup Series race on dirt will come to an end with the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 28.
Petty addressed the subject on Friday at BMS during a news conference in which he announced that Tide will sponsor the No. 43 Chevrolet driven by Erik Jones in the dirt race.
“When I heard they were making a dirt track out of this, it teed me off because I was the last winner on a dirt track,” Petty joked. “Now, they’re taking that from me. From a PR standpoint, it’s good to do something different. It’s going to be very interesting since some of these guys haven’t run dirt and we don’t have dirt-track cars.”
Thirty of Petty’s record 200 Cup wins came on dirt tracks, and he said he considers David Pearson to be his toughest rival on the surface. Pearson ranks second to him on NASCAR’s all-time win list and Petty’s often said he’s the best driver he raced against.
Petty said he learned how to race on dirt by watching drivers like Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner and his father, Lee. Bristol, with its 19-degree banking, is much different than the dirt tracks on which Petty raced.
“We never ran a banked dirt track when I was racing,” Petty said. “They were banked just enough for the water to run off. We could have had a good time on something like this.”
The last Cup Series race on dirt was the Home State 200 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. petty led 112 of the 200 laps and won by a two-lap margin over runner-up Neil Castles.
“It was a rough track, never smooth like this track,” Petty recalled. “It was a dirt track where they also raced horses and stuff. There were holes big enough to bury a car. You were lucky to get around the holes. The dirt tracks now are so much different where they know how to use the calcium and all the different compounds.”
Jones said he’s proud to be carrying on the tradition of drivers such Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd and Ricky Craven in a ride sponsored by Tide, in addition to driving the iconic No. 43 that Petty made famous.
“Obviously being in the No. 43 car is a big honor for me,” Jones said. “I grew up a fan of the history of the sport and I know what that number means to NASCAR. To have my opportunity to write my own chapter in it is pretty important.”
As for racing on the converted Bristol track, he looks to his last time in a similar type vehicle on dirt.
“I really don’t know what to expect. I’ve done some dirt racing, but the last time I’ve run one of these kinds of cars were the trucks at Eldora,” Jones said. “I will pull from that experience, where we struggled and felt we could do better. The fortunate part is crew chief Jerry (Baxter) was crew chief for the trucks there.”
Drivers who have raced open-wheeled sprint cars on dirt have been listed as pre-race favorites, but neither Petty nor Jones believes that’s necessarily the case. Petty expects the track to become slick like a similarly slick asphalt surface, and Jones agrees.
“I think you can set your expectations pretty high for this race,” Jones said. “It should be a level playing field. Nobody knows 100% what to expect. Even if you look at the dirt racers in the field like Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., I don’t know if they have any advantage over us because it’s so unique and different.
“They’re not dirt cars but the same cars we drive on pavement, so the style of racing they’re used to isn’t like what we’re doing here.”
Petty also announced that his partnership with Food City raised more than $2.3 million for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, including more than $500,000 over the last year.