Petty, Earnhardt still reign supreme

CONCORD, N.C. -- Day 1 of the Sprint Media Tour was in overtime thanks to a wreck that stopped traffic on Interstate 85 during the Monday night bus ride to Richard Childress Racing. Reporters were weary. Some were downright grouchy over the one-hour-plus delay that was compounded by another delay on the return trip.

But shortly after 10 p.m., two of the most iconic stars in NASCAR history were waiting in Concord F of the Embassy Suites hotel, which hosts this four-day event.

And the frustration of a long day vanished.

"Dale Jr. is a new spokesperson [for Goody's headache powder]," Goody's brand director Joseph Juliano said as he introduced a multiyear deal with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and longtime spokesperson Richard Petty. "Dale is the most popular racer in NASCAR today, with the exception of Richard, of course."

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr. share a moment during All-Star weekend in 2007 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Petty tapped Earnhardt on the knee and laughed.

Earnhardt smiled, almost to the point of blushing.

They were natural together. Almost a perfect match of old and new.

One easily could argue they are an odd couple. Petty won a NASCAR record 200 races and seven championships, tied with Earnhardt's father for the most titles all time. He is "The King." A first-ballot Hall of Famer. One of the greatest drivers, if not the greatest, in the history of the sport.

Earnhardt has 19 wins, only one in the past four years. He has never won a Cup title. He has never finished better than third in the final standings in 13 seasons. Some call him overrated. One of the most overrated in the history of the sport, some say, since he has failed to win a title with powerful Hendrick Motorsports. A shell of the driver his father was, others say.

Yet seeing Petty and Earnhardt together felt right, and here's why:

As much as you respect Petty for what he did on the track, he is just as respected for what he did off it. He, as Earnhardt reminded, set the standard for how drivers should treat fans -- and even media. It reminded me of the time I saw Petty sit for more than six hours on the front porch of his Level Cross, N.C., home and methodically sign autographs.

Until everyone went home.

As much as you may disrespect Earnhardt for what he hasn't done on the track, you have to respect him for what he's done off it. No driver today treats fans with more respect, which may be why his followers have remained loyal and made him the sport's most popular driver for 10 consecutive years.

No driver treats the sport with more respect today, just as no driver treated the sport with more respect in his day than Petty.

Some might argue it is criminal to refer to Earnhardt in the same breath as Petty. It is a bigger crime not to.

They are a lot more alike than they are different.

Not everybody can win seven titles as Petty did. It takes more than talent. It takes a lot of luck in today's world, as Petty told a group of us before last season's finale in which Brad Keselowski held off Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson for his first championship. And it's not simply having the fastest car, as was the case when Petty drove.

But everybody can be nice. Polite. Decent.

That describes Petty and Earnhardt to a T.

They may be separated by seven championships, but they are connected by so much more.

Petty respects that just as much as Earnhardt respects Petty's accomplishments.

"He is very mature to begin with as far as the way he handled stuff that was thrown on him," Petty said. "It was thrown on him because of his dad. He's done a very good job of being able to handle it and not winning races. He's been able to handle the pressures.

"I've got all the admiration because of that, the way he handles stuff."

Seeing Petty and Earnhardt together was long overdue. Until that moment on Monday, I'd never seen them share a stage or microphone. Earnhardt's longtime public relations guy, Mike Davis, couldn't think of a time like that either.

But you got the feeling Earnhardt has been paying attention to Petty for a lifetime. You got the feeling a part of two seven-time champions helped shape him.

"He's seen his dad," Petty said. "He's seen me, I guess, or just knew I was there. He watched his dad and how he interacted with people. Sometimes Dale Sr. didn't act like he had time to do it. Junior learned and said that's not the way I'm going to do it.

He watched his dad and how he interacted with people. Sometimes Dale Sr. didn't act like he had time to do it. Junior learned and said that's not the way I'm going to do it.

-- Richard Petty

"By seeing one do it one way and one doing it another, he said this is the best way to do it. He's a quick learner."

Earnhardt is a history buff when it comes to NASCAR. Being able to finally be alongside the driver who made much of that history is an honor.

Earnhardt gets approached by potential sponsors all the time. This one was too good to turn down because it was with The King.

"When I was young, people talked about the most popular guy, talked about The King and referenced how he treated fans just as often as they referenced how many races he won," Earnhardt said. "You always heard how he interacted with the public. That was the standard then -- in the '80s, the '90s it was the standard. And it's still the standard today.

"It carries just as strong today as it always has. When drivers need an example to look at … nobody has done it better, and I don't know that anybody ever will."

Earnhardt comes close to that standard in today's world. Minus all the titles and wins, he is everything an owner and sponsor would ever want. He, like Petty, is a good businessman.

Petty gets that. That's why he's not offended that Goody's brought in this 38-year-old who has never won a title to help attract the younger generation who may or may not have heard of The King.

He sees beyond the titles and wins.

And seeing Petty with Earnhardt eased the frustration of a long day.

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