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Remembering Daytona 500 1981 - Petty’s seventh heaven

Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher have both won seven Formula 1 world championships but there is only one man that has conquered NASCAR's Daytona 500 seven times: The King - Richard Petty.

Four decades on Motorsport.com revisits Petty’s last and record-setting Daytona 500 triumph, courtesy of Motorsport.tv's archive.

This weekend marks 40 years since Petty achieved the unprecedented feat in NASCAR’s jewel in the crown event, a record that looks unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon, thanks to wins in 1964, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1979 and 1981.

Heading into the 1981 Daytona 500, Petty had somewhat of a drought by his high standards at NASCAR’s showpiece, with his last victory coming two years previously, such was his record at the race.

Despite this formidable run of results at Daytona, that year’s race was different aided by NASCAR throwing a curveball to teams with regulation changes prior to the start of the season.

All teams were required to run ‘downsized’ cars featuring 110 inch (280cm) wheelbases to fall into line with the trend in the automotive industry. Such a change presented sizeable challenges for teams and drivers to get on top of handling and set up in time for Daytona.

In addition to that there was plenty of change going on at Petty Enterprises as Petty switched to Buick having raced a Chevrolet the previous year.

While the changes in regulations threatened to create an air of unpredictability, that soon vanished courtesy of Bobby Allison, who emerged as the clear favourite. Allison had managed to unlock the potential of his Harry Ranier-run Pontiac Le Mans, the only car in the field with a sloped rear window, which was deemed to greatly improve the aerodynamics compared to its rivals.

It was certainly the car to have and this was proved by Allison dominating 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. Held in high winds, and that coupled with new unpredictable cars saw drivers become particularly twitchy. It was John Anderson in the #77 to suffer 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 on and over, coming down on its roof on the track, before skidding to a stop down the back straight.

Meanwhile, 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 Buick of Darrell Waltrip shared the spoils in the two qualifying races.

Although Allison and Waltrip were hot favourites 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.

Raceday arrived and with it a bumper 200,000 crowd eagerly anticipating another classic battle to decide the winner of America’s Great Race.

With Allison and Waltrip locking out the front row, Petty was left starting from eighth alongside 1980 NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt.

Living up to the predictions Allison stormed off into the lead and would go on to dominate much of the race leading 117 of 200 laps. Although, he certainly wasn’t able to relax with a pack of Waltrip, Buddy Baker, Don Whittington, Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd all challenging the Pontiac. Baker, Earnhardt and Rudd would lead laps.

The same couldn’t be said of one of the race favourites Waltrip, who retired after 55 laps with an engine issue.

Meanwhile, further back, Petty was stalking in the distance in the #43 Buick. 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 piece of strategy.

But first leader Allison would run out of fuel and coast into the pit lane for a top up and was followed by Rudd and Earnhardt. However, Petty elected to stay out and inherit the lead for the first time in the race and there he would stay in what was a dramatic grandstand finish.

Petty couldn’t get home on the fuel he had remaining so was forced to pit but only took on fuel, saving time by electing against fresh rubber. It did the trick as the famous #43 emerged in the lead but with a slender advantage over Allison on much tidier rubber.

Allison managed to close the gap but it wasn’t enough as Petty 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 (Oldsmobile) saw off Baker (Oldsmobile) and Earnhardt (Pontiac) for third.

Little did he know at the time but this would be Petty’s seventh and last Daytona 500 victory despite going on to contest the event every year up until 1992. The win was also poignant given that strategy played a big part in the success and this race was his final with crew chief Dale Inman.

“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.

And what about winning it 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 and especially the Daytona 500," he said. 

Log on to Motorsport.com to keep up to date with all the news from the Daytona 500.

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

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Series NASCAR
Author Tom Howard