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Good to be The King: Petty's presence still looms large in NASCAR 3 decades after retirement

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The King was holding court, trying to explain why the words of a driver who has been retired since 1992 carry as much weight today as they did back in the day when Winston was the name of the Cup game.

His audience interrupted, wanting instead to drain Richard Petty's pen dry.

"Oh my God, I'm so excited," said one woman, holding a team-issued glossy. "I know you guys are doing an interview. But, oh my God. Thank you so much, Richard. Oh my God."

Another man with a photo tells Petty outside the No. 43 hauler, "I met you years ago."

Join the club.

When Petty pops out of his chair, there's still some spring in those 76-year-old steps, and he signs every photo, smiles for every snapshot and makes eye contact with the kids who know him only as the voice from "Cars" and not the Hall of Fame driver known as The King.

In the era of Junior and Jimmie, Petty is the rare throwback who looms as large in NASCAR as the stars of today. He's still a familiar sight at racetracks in feathered cowboy hats, dark glasses and cowboy boots. His opinions still move the sports needle, especially when he's jabbing fan favourite Danica Patrick.

The King is synonymous with Daytona, and he still knows how to steal the spotlight.

Petty opened Speedweeks defending his remarks that the only way Patrick can win was a race was if "everybody else stayed home." Pressed to clarify or back off his comments, Petty dug in his spurs.

"It bugs me that you've got to be political correct," Petty said. "I'm not changing my outlook on the world just to be political correct."

Saying the safe thing for the sake of playing nice has never been a Petty specialty.

His comments bugged fellow Cup champion Tony Stewart, Patrick's teammate and boss, to the point where he challenged Petty to get in a car and race her. How about it, one more spin for old-timer's sake, Petty vs. Patrick?

"That would be good," a grinning Petty said. "It's been a while since I've been on the track. But I think I could come back a little bit."

Others drivers defended Petty's opinion.

"You can't call out The King," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, "because he's The King."

He earned that reputation as the best in stock cars, winning championships in 1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1979. In 1,184 starts, Petty had 200 wins, 712 top-10 finishes and 123 poles. He had a record 513 consecutive starts from 1971-89.

He moved into ownership, and his famed No. 43 is slapped on Aric Almirola's Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports.

"I can't tell you how many fans come up and say, '43 for life. We love The King, so we love you,'" Almirola said. "All the fans that I have are Richard Petty fans or die-hard 43 fans from the 60s and 70s, and they've carried down all the way to 2014."

Petty attended a food donation drive this week at a local Winn-Dixie that allowed select fans dressed as The King to meet him for an autograph. Sure enough, they came for Petty, dressed in Stetson hats and sunglasses, many with fake moustaches stuck on their faces.

"His lasting impact on the sport is the way he treated fans, the way he treated other drivers, the way he treated the media and cracked that door for drivers behind him to sit and sign autographs, to always have time for the fans," said his son, NASCAR announcer Kyle Petty. "That's the legacy that I remember most.

"The wins came, championships came, wins as an owner have come, a lot of people just look at that part of the sport. That's how he'll be judged. But the people who met him always come back to that moment. I got to meet The King."

The King has tried walking around the garage without his signature hat and glasses, effectively shedding gear to disguise himself and get to his destination more quickly. It never works.

"They take a second look, and then they're behind you yelling, 'Hey, Richard!'" Petty said.

But he always signs the photos and listens to the stories.

"These are the people that are keeping me in business," he said. "It takes everything to make it work."

The King guessed he's missed only about 100 races in NASCAR history. And he has no plans of slowing down.

"Racing is not something Richard Petty does," Kyle Petty said. "Racing is something Richard Petty is. He's not ready to just go home and sit down in a chair because, to him, life is racing. Breathing is racing."

Petty still likes the air at the track just fine.

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