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Evolution in NASCAR driving sport's records further out of reach


There is a certain security in being Richard Petty. Because even though his race team has fallen into such disrepair it took on a corporate partner on Wednesday, even though he hasn't slid behind the wheel in a NASCAR race that mattered since 1992, the 70-year-old driving legend defined by his cowboy hay, trimmed mustache and dark sunglasses will remain, in nickname, and in historical fact, "The King."

While change in baseball allowed the most hallowed of baseball records, the lifetime home-run standard, to fall, change in racing has fortified the most sacred of NASCAR accomplishments. Athletes cannot transcend when the game does not allow.

Longer seasons, smaller ballparks, expansion and the increased use of performance-enhancing drugs helped pull down Babe Ruth's mark of 714 home runs and Hank Aaron's standard of 755. But with NASCAR's growth from a regional barnstorming spectacle where upwards of 60 sanctioned races a season could be contested, to a heavily orchestrated national major league, gone are the days when men like Petty could race multiple times a week for paycheck and glory. And gone are the days when fending off a few key rivals like Cale Yarborough, Joe Weatherly or Junior Johnson was the main obstacle besides avoiding the pitfalls of little bullrings spread throughout the South. Two hundred victories, the total Petty amassed over 35 seasons, therefore may be one of the safest records in sports.

"You look at Richard's 200 wins, but that was accomplished when you could win 20-25 times in a season, and that's not going to happen anymore," said Darrell Waltrip, the modern-era wins leader with 84. "It's hard to compare apples to apples here. If you look at the numbers, you can say no one is ever going to win 200 races, but if you look at the quality of those 200 Richard won, some of them were 100-lappers, some of them were 100-milers. Sometimes he won five races in one weekend: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and he'd win all of them because he was going somewhere where no one else was."

Petty, who passed his father, Lee, as career wins leader in '67, feels no remorse for dominating most everything he undertook, though from '59 to '71 he won 140 races, contesting no fewer than 44 events a year. In '64 he raced 62 times. NASCAR's top series has not contested more than 36 events -- the current amount -- since '71.

"Jeff [Gordon] is the active win leader now [with 81]," Petty said, "but he's not going to stay around long enough to make that work. It's percentages. They're going to have to win a bigger percentage than we did because there are fewer races and it's not likely to happen because of the competition."

Petty won 200 times in 1,185 races over 35 seasons, a 17-percent success rate. Gordon has 81 wins in 523 races over parts of 17 seasons, at 15 percent. He'd have to win at that pace until he was 55 to catch Petty.

Gordon, who turns 37 in August, is the defining driver of his generation and is just four wins from becoming the modern-era leader and third on the all-time wins list at 85. A four-time series champion, he has a better chance of catching Petty and Dale Earnhardt in that category. They each won seven.

No longer is a perfect campaign needed because of the Chase for the Championship format instituted in 2004, just a top-12 standing when the playoffs begin in the 27th race of the season. Gordon would have won a fifth title in '04 under the old points system, but missed the playoffs in '05. Gordon, who's finished outside the top 10 just twice in his previous 15 full seasons, thinks the new system gives him a title chance every year, but he's said he wouldn't stay in the sport at old age simply to chase records.

"If it was doable," he said in '05. "There are a lot of ifs, ands and buts there. If we had seven championships and things are still going well ... I want to stay in this sport as long as I'm healthy and competitive and I'm enjoying what I'm doing. It has nothing to do with numbers. But if I just came off of winning seven championships, I'd probably want to go try for that eighth one."

But 200 wins and seven championships may not be the most iron-clad of records. Ricky Rudd retired at 48 in '05, having made 788 consecutive starts over 31 seasons. Most of those races encompassed a period -- beginning Jan. 11, 1981, at Riverside International Raceway -- when the understanding of driver safety was feeble or unappreciated and peril was real. All that changed with the death of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the '01 Daytona 500.

Rudd avoided injury during a violent flip at Daytona in '84 and drove despite torn ligaments in his leg after slamming the wall in the '88 all-star race. Owner Kenny Bernstein had flown him to Indianapolis, where an orthopedist began an aggressive rehabilitation program rather than following the recommendation of doctors, who advised surgery that would have cost him six weeks.

Rusty Wallace retired in '05 with a 697-race streak. Gordon is the active leader with 523 consecutive starts, putting him more than seven seasons away.

The synergy of safer race cars and drivers making their Sprint Cup debut younger would seemingly make Rudd's record attainable, but it's actually created an environment for getting in and out healthy and wealthy. Fewer successful drivers envision driving at 40.

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"When NASCAR first started running, drivers like Fred Lorenzen, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, they retired at 34-35 years old because that's what all the rest of the athletes did," Petty said. "Then the next crowd comes along and they all last to 40 or 50. The big crowd in the middle with Darrell, me, Earnhardt, (David) Pearson, Cale, all those guys pushed the scale up. Now the scale is going to start going downhill because in 10 years they make $50 million. So you say, 'Why should they do that?' They won't."

The King, forever.

What are the chances some of NASCAR's most hallowed records will fall? Let's assess the chances:

Wins: 200, Richard Petty

Untouchable: Jeff Gordon is the active leader with 81 and is just four away from jumping Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third on the all-time list. It's a steep escarpment from there. David Pearson, 105, then Petty. With a career win percentage of .1549, Gordon would require more than 20 years to catch Petty.

Championships: 7, Richard Petty

Maybe: Gordon has four titles and the Chase for the Championship eliminates the need for a perfect season. He hasn't won under the system, though, claiming his last title in '01 and missing the playoffs in '05. Another impediment could be his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who has rattled off consecutive titles. At 32 and in the sweet spot of a career that's been sweet from the start in '02, Johnson may have a chance, too.

Consecutive race streak: 788, Ricky Rudd

Untouchable times ten: Gordon would be 45 if he were to reach the milestone, but he's rich, successful, a father and the standard against which his generation will be judged. He gives every indication of being at peace enough with his resume to move onto other things rather than race as an old man.

Starts: 1,185, Richard Petty

Untouchable:Bobby Labonte (524) is closest, but is that really close? Labonte is 44. Petty contested 40 or more races 10 times in his 35-year career.

Win percentage: .2105, Herb Thomas

Maybe: Thomas ran just 228 races from '49 to '62, winning 48 of them (and two championships) in the "strictly stock" era. He ran just one full season. Jimmie Johnson (.1459) has 34 wins in 233 races and might produce just the right success and longevity curves to have a chance. Following up a 10-win season with just one so far this season isn't helping, though.

Restrictor plate wins: 12, Jeff Gordon

Absolutely: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has seven already, though none since a win at Talladega in '04. Jimmie Johnson has just two, but lots of time to catch up.