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No. 43 will get Petty Blue treatment

Petty Blue is back.

The hue made famous by NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty once again will become a fixture at Sprint Cup Series events, thanks to an idea pushed by The King of Stock Car Racing and agreed to by the sponsor of the car he once drove and now fields as a team owner.

Smithfield Foods, primary sponsor of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford driven by Aric Almirola, has agreed to forgo today's common NASCAR practice of rotating complicated specialty paint schemes. Instead, during its 25 races on the hood of Almirola's Fusion, Smithfield will promote its five major brands with much simpler designs, featuring mainly white logos placed atop the iconic shade known as Petty Blue.

The new blue plan begins this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, with Smithfield brand Farmland Foods on the hood. Almirola, in just his second full-time season, finished 20th in the 2012 Sprint Cup standings and 13th in Sunday's Daytona 500.

"I think bringing back Petty Blue makes everything easier for everyone," the 75-year-old Petty said Tuesday. "It's easier for the fans to find the car on the racetrack. It's easier on Smithfield and all our sponsors to stand out. It's easier on the guys who paint up the cars. And it's easier for me because now I can wear all my Petty Blue stuff again. I got a house full of it."

From 1960 through 2000, Petty Blue was the primary color for the race cars built by the Randleman, N.C.-based family operation known as Petty Enterprises. It was included in the color scheme for all of Petty's record 200 wins, seven Cup Series titles and seven Daytona 500 victories. It was best known as half of the legendary STP-backed rides of the 1970s and '80s. Petty Blue became so popular that it is still listed as an official color choice by multiple paint companies. But after STP reduced its involvement in 2001, Petty Blue's prominence on the race car declined, eventually relegated to a background color or used only in one-off throwback designs.

In recent weeks, Smithfield Foods president/CEO Larry Pope, a Virginian and self-admitted "lifelong NASCAR fan," approached Petty about bringing back the old school Petty Blue schemes. Petty, who long has lobbied for the simplification of NASCAR race car appearances, jumped at the chance to turn back the clock for 25 of the season's 36 races.

The deal is somewhat reminiscent of how the globally recognizable STP look came together. En route to Riverside, Calif., for the 1972 NASCAR season opener, Petty stopped in Chicago to talk to STP chief Andy Granatelli. The famously direct Italian businessman was ready to write a historically large sponsorship check, but only if Petty would agree to paint his No. 43 cars in Granatelli's DayGlo red, like his STP cars at the Indianapolis 500. Petty refused to back down from his lucky Petty Blue, though, and they eventually agreed to split the difference and created an iconic look.

This time around there was no conflict in the conversation. Now, Pope and Petty are hoping for the same type of eye-catching look.

"I'm hoping maybe it will set a trend," Petty said. "I like the special paint jobs. We kind of invented that whole deal with my fan appreciation tour in 1992 when I retired as a driver. But they work best when you use them only every now and then. Maybe this deal might be the start of a new trend that's really just an old trend."

It was Petty who came up with racing's most recognizable color -- by accident. His father, fellow Hall of Famer Lee Petty, ran a varying series of paint jobs during NASCAR's largely sponsor-free first decade, from white to red to black. Late in the 1959 season, while Lee was away racing, 22-year-old Richard and little brother/crew chief Maurice were busy repairing another Petty Engineering Plymouth Fury. Then came time to paint it.

"I had some dark blue and some white, but not enough of either one to paint a whole car," Petty recalls. "So I looked at Maurice and he looked at me and we just mixed those two half-buckets together. Petty Blue is what came out. When Daddy got home it just blew him away, so the following year we started running it on all our cars. It became our trademark."

Now the team, reborn four years ago as Richard Petty Motorsports, hopes it can be again.