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PETTY’S LAST RIDE MARKS THE END OF A RACING ERA

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The King's last ride. So final. The end of a reign. The end of an era.

When Richard Petty climbs out of his trademark Petty blue and STP red Pontiac Grand Prix on Sunday after the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he will complete a driving career that began 35 years ago in the dusty formative days of what the late Bill France Sr. named the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.Petty, now 55, has been the main figure - an everyman idol of millions - in the growth of the NASCAR series into one of the most popular forms of sport in the world.

His numbers are remarkable:

- 200 wins - 95 more than any competitor.

- Seven Winston Cup championships - two more than closest pursuer Dale Earnhardt.

- Seven Daytona 500 victories.

- Forty-one 500-mile wins.

- Twenty-seven wins in a single season (1967).

- Ten wins in a row (1967).

- At least one victory every season for 18 years (1960-1977).

- Purses totalling nearly $8 million.

Even more impressive is the fact that Petty remains the most beloved figure in NASCAR history. Without a victory since July of 1984, and without being really competitive over the past five years, King Richard still is the unquestioned favorite of the fans.

Sunday's race is an obvious example of the hero adoration still heaped upon the King.

There would almost certainly be a big crowd - probably a record crowd on hand because of the exciting six-man Winston Cup championship battle.

But Atlanta Motor Speedway officials readily admit they have had to add seats, permanent and temporary, to handle the overflow crowd that will be here to give stock car's King a proper sendoff.

"I can't believe how good it makes you feel," Petty said Thursday as he approached his final ride. "You know, I've always tried to treat the fans like I would want them to treat me if I was on the other side of the fence. Hopefully, we've done a decent job of that.

"Fortunately, I was in the right place at the right time to get into racing and have the family behind me, to work with me and get me to go back in there when things went wrong . . . But it's not been a solo situation. Richard Petty didn't do any of this stuff by himself. The fans helped, the press helped, the family helped - you name it, everybody was involved. The people that work for us, the manufacturers and everybody."

"I want to get through with this so I can get to the thing I really want to do, and that's go racing again," Petty said. "That's why I want to put this part of it behind me, so I can start a new career, as a car owner.