Remembering the 1981 Daytona 500: Richard Petty's last hurrah

Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher have both won seven Formula 1 world championships, but only one man has conquered NASCAR's Daytona 500 seven times - Richard Petty. Four decades on, TOM HOWARD revisits The King's record-setting final win in 1981

Remembering the 1981 Daytona 500: Richard Petty's last hurrah

The 2021 NASCAR Cup season gets underway this weekend, with Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin hoping to secure a historic third consecutive victory in the jewel-in-the-crown Daytona 500.

A fourth win would put Hamlin, who won the 2016 event before doubling up in 2019 and 2020, level on wins with three-time Cup champion Cale Yarborough and second in the all-time stakes.

But Hamlin would still have to go a long way to match the unprecedented seven wins achieved by Petty, who took the last of those 40 years ago this weekend.

PLUS: The NASCAR subplots to keep an eye on in 2021

Heading into the 1981 Daytona 500, Petty had somewhat of a drought by his high standards at NASCAR's showpiece. The victor in 1964, 1966, 1971, 1973 and 1974 had only managed one more win in the intervening years when, in 1979, he'd snapped a 45-race winless drought after Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the final lap, then engaged in a famous fight on the infield.

In 1980, he'd broken his neck in a crash at Pocono. Concealing the injury from NASCAR, Petty competed the following week at Talladega before being relieved - which became a common trend for the remainder of the season as he hung on to finish fourth in the standings.

The 1981 race was the first to follow NASCAR throwing a curveball to teams with regulation changes that required them to run 'downsized' cars featuring 110-inch (280cm) wheelbases (from the previous 115 inches), to fall into line with the trend in the automotive industry. This change presented sizeable challenges for teams and drivers to get on top of handling and set-up.

In addition, there was plenty of change going on at Petty Enterprises as the famous #43 was switched to Buick - Petty having driven Oldsmobiles on the superspeedways and Chevrolets everywhere else in 1980.

Hopes that the new regulations would create an air of unpredictability appeared short-lived when Bobby Allison emerged as the clear favourite. His Harry Ranier-run Pontiac - run by the Ranier-Lundy team that had fielded Buddy Baker's winning entry in 1980 - was the only car in the field with a sloped rear window, which was deemed to greatly improve the aerodynamics compared to its rivals.

Allison duly dominated Speedweek, resulting in a pole position after victory in his qualifying race.

The twin 125-mile qualifying races that saw more than 60 cars compete for the 42 places on the grid were not without incident, as drivers grappled with their new machines.

John Anderson suffered the first major crash when his car flipped coming onto the straightaway out of Turn 2, before entering a series of violent rolls.

In the same race, Connie Saylor fell victim to a gust of wind which lifted his Oldsmobile up and over onto its roof on the track, before skidding to a stop down the back straight.

Both drivers fortunately escaped unharmed.

Petty ran strongly inside the top 10 in his qualifying race, but he was not among the favourites for the big dance, as Allison and the Junior Johnson-run Buick of Darrell Waltrip shared the spoils in the two qualifying races. The latter summed up what it takes to win succinctly.

"It's a combination of brains and balls. You got to know when to stand on the gas and when to back off," he said.

A bumper 200,000 crowd filled the grandstands on raceday, eagerly anticipating another classic battle. Petty started from eighth, alongside 1980 NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt.

Living up to the predictions, Allison stormed off into the lead and dominated much of the race, leading 117 of 200 laps. However, he certainly wasn't able to relax with Waltrip, Baker, Don Whittington, Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd all challenging.

While Baker, Earnhardt and Rudd would lead laps, pre-race favourite Waltrip retired after 55 laps with an engine issue. Further back, Petty was waiting to see how events would play out. He would remain in contention throughout a series of cautions.

One of the most spectacular caution-causing incidents saw Geoff Bodine's Pontiac speared into the infield at Turn 2, forcing photographers to scatter. The car would come to a rest next to a television broadcast truck.

While Petty spent much of the race in the background, he couldn't be ruled out and he pounced as the race entered its final stages with an inspired strategy ploy.

After Allison ran out of fuel and coasted into the pit lane for a top-up, he was followed by Rudd and Earnhardt. However, Petty elected to stay out and took the lead for the first time in the race. There he would stay, thanks to the canny decision not to take tyres at his final fuel stop.

Despite much fresher rubber that allowed him to close the gap, Allison couldn't catch Petty - who took the chequered flag by 3.5s and in the process scored a first NASCAR win for Buick since 1956. Allison would end up second while Rudd saw off Baker and Earnhardt for third.

Petty contested the event every year until his retirement in 1992, but would never better a third place in 1987. The 1981 win was especially poignant as crew chief Dale Inman quit two days later to join Earnhart's crew.

"I felt with 20 laps to go and if we didn't have a caution we would be in good shape," said Petty.

"I think for the crew it was probably the most emotional race that we have run down here because we have blown a couple of engines this week and we had no test time on the Buick before we got here.

"They are a heck of a crew as they sat down and tried to figure out what we need to do and they done it, they were super. The engine we started with had never been on a race track, we didn't get a chance to try it so we went out cold turkey again, which we have done before, but we really didn't know what to expect.

"Everything worked good all day, we couldn't lead but we could keep up no problems. We were there with the crowd and then when we made the final pit stop the race fell apart and we were in front."

Asked how it felt to win the event for a seventh time, Petty offered a humble response: "It never get old you know to win, he added. It feels super to win any kind of race, especially the Daytona 500."

Join Motorsport.tv and access over 800 episodes of Duke Classics, including the full 1981 Daytona 500 review.

shares
comments
NASCAR start time: What time does the Daytona 500 start?
Previous article

NASCAR start time: What time does the Daytona 500 start?

Next article

1990 Daytona winner Cope plans aggression on NASCAR swansong

1990 Daytona winner Cope plans aggression on NASCAR swansong
The ex-F1 driver taking on NASCAR with a new team Plus

The ex-F1 driver taking on NASCAR with a new team

Saddled with uncompetitive Minardi machinery, Tarso Marques didn't manage to score points in his three partial seasons of Formula 1. But now the Brazilian has the chance to show what he can do in NASCAR, and explains the story of his comeback with new Cup Series entrant Team Stange

Formula 1
Apr 13, 2022
The early benefits and challenges of NASCAR's Next Gen car Plus

The early benefits and challenges of NASCAR's Next Gen car

NASCAR’s new stock car generation is encouraging an influx of fresh blood into its top tier. But there are concerns that parts are in short supply as the entire paddock tries to build up stocks at the same time

NASCAR
Feb 22, 2022
How Penske's rookie sensation opened NASCAR's new era in style Plus

How Penske's rookie sensation opened NASCAR's new era in style

After holding his nerve and hip-checking his team-mate on the run to the line, Austin Cindric made a perfect start to life as a full-timer in the NASCAR Cup Series by winning the Daytona 500. Here's how the Penske Ford man emerged first across the line in the first points-scoring race for the much-anticipated Next Generation cars

NASCAR
Feb 21, 2022
Six key themes to follow in the 2022 NASCAR Cup season Plus

Six key themes to follow in the 2022 NASCAR Cup season

There are plenty of uncertainties ahead of the 2022 NASCAR Cup season as an all-new fleet of cars take to the track for the first time. Ahead of this weekend's Daytona 500, our experts explain what you need to know

NASCAR
Feb 17, 2022
How NASCAR had to learn a harsh lesson ahead of its Next Gen arrival Plus

How NASCAR had to learn a harsh lesson ahead of its Next Gen arrival

The NASCAR Cup kicks off with the Daytona 500 this weekend, but a major overhaul and a subsequent mountain of work has been required to be ready for the arrival of the Next Gen cars

NASCAR Cup
Feb 16, 2022
How Larson took the long way round to NASCAR Cup glory Plus

How Larson took the long way round to NASCAR Cup glory

From villain to hero, Kyle Larson’s journey to the 2021 NASCAR Cup title comes straight from the Hollywood blockbuster scripts. While Larson had to reach his lifelong goal the hard way and go through a very public shaming after a ban for using a racial slur, his talents shone long before his name grabbed the headlines for both the right and the wrong reasons

NASCAR
Nov 10, 2021
How NASCAR is gearing up for its "biggest change" in 2022 Plus

How NASCAR is gearing up for its "biggest change" in 2022

It’s not just Formula 1 that’s set for upheaval in 2022, as the NASCAR Cup Series adopts its Next Gen cars that will cast any in-built advantages aside and require teams to adopt a totally new way of operating. Far more than just a change of machinery, the new cars amount to a shift in NASCAR's core philosophy

NASCAR
Oct 12, 2021
Why Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win is such a big moment for NASCAR Plus

Why Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win is such a big moment for NASCAR

Bubba Wallace claimed his maiden NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega on Monday to become the first Black victor in the category since Wendell Scott in 1963. Both Wallace and Scott had faced obstacles and racism in their paths to their breakthrough wins, and NASCAR is trying to put it right with its range of diversity programmes

NASCAR
Oct 5, 2021