Based on statistics alone, it's not a stretch to describe Richard Petty as the greatest driver who ever sat behind the wheel of a NASCAR stock car.
Petty's record 200 Sprint Cup victories have proved every bit as unapproachable as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak—perhaps more so. His seven championships are matched only by Dale Earnhardt, a fellow member of the inaugural class in NASCAR's Hall of Fame.
Petty's 1967 season was more than a career for most other drivers. He won 27 of the 48 races he entered and posted top-five finishes in 11 others. That championship season, which also included 18 poles, featured a magical stretch late in the year that no other driver has come close to equaling.
An Aug. 12 win at Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., started a streak of 10 straight victories that would end with a victory Oct. 1 at North Wilkesboro. The 10 wins came on 10 different racetracks and included a victory in the 1967 Southern 500.
To his son, Kyle Petty, a winner of eight Cup races, the statistics weren't what earned Petty the enduring title of "King."
"It's always hard to define greatness," said Kyle Petty, now an analyst for Speed and TNT. "The skill set is one thing. But what made Richard Petty Richard Petty is that same intangible quality that made Arnold Palmer Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus Jack Nicklaus or Michael Jordan Michael Jordan.
"Out of 43 drivers, why do fans latch onto that one like The King or Earnhardt? That's a hard question. It's an intangible. I don't know what made Richard Petty Richard Petty except for his love of the sport and his desire to be the best, coupled with talent capable of making him the best during that time."
Though Petty hasn't raced since 1992, his connection to the sport remains unbroken. You'll find him at the racetrack most weekends as one of the principals of Richard Petty Motorsports, the product of a succession of mergers that created a four-car Cup operation.
Invariably, he will sign more autographs than anyone else in the garage, as he always had. Every signature is painstakingly legible.
As Kyle points out, any discussion of Richard Petty's legacy in NASCAR racing is incomplete without acknowledgement of his contribution to the growth of the sport and his unbreakable connection with its fans.
"The King's example always has been that he knows he was very fortunate and blessed to step across the line from being a fan to become a participant," Kyle Petty said. "We're all just fans of the sport, extremely blessed to be a participant, and that's what he always carried with him.
"He always looked at the fan as a reflection of himself, the guy who asks for the autograph and photo, the 8-year-old who wants to be a racecar driver. In the end, we're all just fans who get to play the sport we love, and he never lost sight of that."