The 1970s was the decade of “The King.”
And no, I don’t mean Elvis Presley, but rather a king who was masterful at wheeling a stock car around race tracks at blazing speeds.
Yes, I mean the king of NASCAR, Richard Petty!
By the time the 1970s rolled around Petty had already made a name for himself — two titles in NASCAR’s premier series and a 1967 season that featured 27 wins, 10 of them consecutive, tends to have that effect on your popularity.
When the new decade dawned, Petty turned up the intensity and put on a clinic, placing his stamp on the 1970s by winning five more NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships (1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1979).
His seven titles in the series stood alone as the record until Dale Earnhardt tied it 15 years later in 1994. Petty and Earnhardt’s shared record still stands today.
After Cale Yarborough won three consecutive titles from 1976 to 1978, Petty wanted to get back on top and prove he was still the king. In Yarborough’s first two championship seasons, Petty finished runner-up both years.
In 1979, however, Petty wouldn’t be denied.
Petty won his final championship that season earning that year’s paint scheme a special place in his heart. The paint scheme and season are so special to him that his own race team, Richard Petty Motorsports, decided to pay tribute to the car and season during Darlington Raceway’s throwback campaign over Labor Day weekend that culminates with the Bojangles’ Southern 500.
“That was our last championship, so it was a breakthrough year of sorts after not winning the year before” Petty said. “Having the car throwback to that year is special because it was a good year for us.”
The No. 43 STP Ford Fusion, driven by Aric Almirola, will carry the historic design featuring the legendary Petty Blue with red accents. Just like 1979, STP will serve as the primary sponsor on Almirola’s No. 43, which is the same number Petty drove.
The only significant change is the make of the car. During the 1979 campaign, Petty drove a Chevrolet in 24 races and an Oldsmobile in seven of the events. Almirola has competed in a Ford Fusion all season.
During the 1979 season, Petty won five races, including the Daytona 500. As it turns out, that year’s Daytona 500 was one of the most important races in NASCAR history in terms of its growing popularity.
Since most of the eastern part of the United States was confined indoors due to a large blizzard, a large portion of the population was able to watch the first live flag-to-flag coverage of a NASCAR 500-mile event.
Not only were the long-time fans and first-time viewers able to watch a spectacular race, they were treated to a post-race boxing match between brothers Donnie and Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough. The fight was the result of a last-lap crash between Donnie and Yarborough. Seeing the fight, Bobby pulled over to assist his younger brother.
As the three duked it out in the infield between Turns 3 and 4, the rest of the field raced by. As the field approached the finish line, Petty held off a challenge from Darrell Waltrip to win his sixth Daytona 500. He would go on to win one more Daytona 500 for a record seven victories in the sport’s most famous race.
The other four races Petty won during the 1979 season were the Virginia 500 (Martinsville Speedway), the Champion Spark Plug 400 (Michigan International Speedway), the CRC Chemicals 500 (Dover International Speedway) and the American 500 (Rockingham Speedway).
The five wins were his fewest in any of his championship seasons. His title run in 1979 was also aided by 27 top-10 finishes in 31 races.
In the two Darlington races that season, Petty finished runner-up in the Spring event, leading 89 of 367 laps, and ninth in the Labor Day event.
Petty beat Waltrip by a mere 11 points in the final standings for the 1979 title. The 11-point separation was the closest in NASCAR history until 1992.
After the 1979 season, Petty only won 10 more races to finish with an amazing 200 victories — a record that will likely never be broken. His final win came in the July 4th event at Daytona during the 1984 season.
He raced for eight more seasons before retiring after the 1992 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In 35 seasons of driving in NASCAR’s premier series, Petty also racked up 123 poles, 555 top fives and 712 top-10 finishes. All three are records.
With these credentials, it’s impossible not to pay tribute to the King and some of his iconic paint schemes.
For more background information, photos and videos of the cars you’ll see on track during Darlington’s throwback weekend, and the cars that inspired them, please visit Lionel Racing’s Throwback Timeline.
For previous “The Story Behind the Scheme” articles, please see below.