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Twelve Historic Daytona 500’s: Richard Petty Out Smarts the Field in 1981

By admin | February 4, 2014

I have been a NASCAR fan for as long as I can remember, and a significant number of my racing memories have come from the Daytona 500. There have been 55 Daytona 500’s to this point and every one of them has been historic in its own right. In this series that will run in the days leading up to this year’s running of ‘The Great American Race’, I will list the twelve versions of the sport’s most important event that I consider to be the most noteworthy.

Richard Petty used strategy to drive this Buick to victory lane in 1981.

By Richard Allen

In the previous entries to ‘Twelve Historic Daytona 500’s’, I have stated that some races are great because of the way they play out and some are great because of who won. Just like the other Daytona 500’s already recounted in this series, the 1981 Daytona 500 had both elements to come together in a memorable way.

Coming into 1981, Richard Petty had already collected six Daytona 500 trophies, and he had done so by essentially dominating the previous races he had won. But in 1981, the legendary driver would have to use his brain as much as his right foot to find his way to victory lane at ‘The World Center of Racing’.

Bobby Allison led the most laps in Harry Ranier’s Pontiac.

Unlike many of their previous trips to the Daytona International Speedway, Petty and his crew chief/cousin Dale Inman did not unload the fastest car in 1981. Longtime rival Bobby Allison had instead shown the most muscle throughout SpeedWeeks in Harry Ranier’s #28 Pontiac. But as has been shown so many times throughout NASCAR history, the fastest car in the field is not always the one that gets to the checkered flag first.

As a matter of fact, Petty would only lead one time in this race for 26 laps compared to Allison’s multiple times at the front of the field for a total of 117 laps. However, the laps Petty led were the last 26 of the day.

Instead of out running everyone, the Hall of Fame driver relied on pit strategy to put him out front when it mattered most and it was his Hall of Fame crew chief who devised the plan that would lead to a startling victory.

“We had noticed tires hadn’t helped us that much all afternoon,” Inman explained. “I told Richard on the radio, I said, ‘Hey, bear with me on this last stop if I do something different. Be ready for anything.’ Bobby was going to beat us if we took time for two tires and gas, so I decided at the last instant, while Richard came down pit road, for just a little gas only. By the time he got back out, he was still ahead of everybody else by about nine seconds.”

After that final pit stop, Petty was able to feather the throttle enough to keep gas in the tank and still beat Allison to the line by three seconds. It would be the seventh and final Daytona 500 victory for ‘The King’.

The 1981 version of ‘The Great American Race’ was certainly one of the most historic of the 55 Daytona 500’s to have been contested.

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4 Responses to “Twelve Historic Daytona 500’s: Richard Petty Out Smarts the Field in 1981”

  1. RacingFan Says:
    February 5th, 2014 at 3:04 am

    Bobby’s car looks like those that run at our local dirt track. It looks like he didn’t have a major sponsor, either. Harry’s cars definitely looked classier when he switched to the Thunderbird and had the Havoline paint scheme on the 28, driven by Davey Allison, even before he sold out to Robert Yates.

    I don’t remember if Robert was with the team already in 1981, but the car’s speed could indicate that he was already there.

  2. Tony Geinzer Says:
    February 5th, 2014 at 8:49 am

    Rich, I would like to see Aric Amirola win the Daytona 500 before the King’s Reign ends. And, I would prefer at least a Minority Daytona 500 Winner, too, but, that day would be a bit longer down the road.

  3. NASCARJeff Says:
    February 5th, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    When Bobby Allison drove the 28 car it was owner by Harry Ranier. Robert Yates was an engine builder who bought the team and hired Davy Allison but Havoline didn’t sign on until after the Daytona 500.

  4. RacingFan Says:
    February 5th, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    NASCARJeff, you don’t have your timeline right. In 1987, Harry Ranier hired Davey and had Joey Knuckles as the crew chief. Ranier also signed Havoline as a sponsor during the 1987 Daytona 500.

    In October 1988, Robert Yates bought Ranier out, though Yates had begun to work for Ranier before he did that. I seem to remember that Yates might have become a co-owner a few months before the complete buy-out, but I am not positive about that.

    I recall much of this because, having been a fan of Bobby, I became a fan of Davey. You can check the Wikipedia listing of “Davey Allison” if you don’t believe me on the timeline.

    I was (and still am) puzzled how Joey Knuckles achieved so much success with Davey and the team so quickly, but then faded so quickly.