ESPN makes mistake; Petty is still the king

by Jim Longworth

Recently ESPN and NASCAR joined forces to recognize the greatest drivers in history. Most of them are giants from the past: Fireball Roberts, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Darryl Waltrip, et al. Even one of today’s superstars, Jeff Gordon, made the list.

But polls can be lightning rods. Remember when Michael Jordan was named the best college basketball player in ACC history? A firestorm erupted because David Thompson clearly held that distinction. Yes, Thompson’s NBA career was cut short by problems with substance abuse, but no one ever played the college game better than Skywalker. So much for the poll’s credibility.

The problem with polls and surveys is that they usually favor celebrities who are still popular with the generation who elevated them to star status. Muhammad Ali, for example, is always named ahead of Rocky Marciano as the greatest boxer who ever lived, yet many men who fought and managed against the Rock agree that, in his prime, Marciano would have beaten Ali. And then there was the ESPN Sports Century poll which ranked Jordan, Babe Ruth and Ali ahead of Jim Brown. Newsflash: Jim Brown excelled in several sports, and was clearly the superior athlete among the field. At the time of the poll, however, Brown was still battling image problems stemming from his history of alleged domestic violence. So much for awarding the top prize to the top talent.

That brings us back to ESPN’s NASCAR poll. How is it that Dale Earnhardt beat out Richard Petty as the No. 1 driver of all time? Three reasons. First, many of today’s NASCAR fans never saw Petty race. Second, Earnhardt died prematurely. And third, prior to his death, Earnhardt wisely created a marketing empire which continues to elevate No. 3 into the realm of mythology.

But numbers don’t lie.

Petty won 200 races compared to Earnhardt’s 76. Richard won seven Daytona races to Dale’s one. And Petty won 27 races in one season, a feat that no one else has come close to accomplishing.

Yes, critics argue that Petty earned his stripes in an era when cars didn’t run as fast; but those were also the days when drivers had far less protection against injury, and the track surfaces were more varied.

And then there’s the matter of personalities. Petty was a fierce competitor who never backed down from anyone, and was given to bumping if provoked. But Earnhardt was a professional intimidator who made a career out of deliberate aggressiveness that put himself and other drivers at risk. In fact, Dale’s death was the result of his attempt to block other drivers from over taking his teammates, Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip, at that fateful Daytona 500.

To use a World War II analogy, Japanese kamikaze pilots might have been admired for their courage, but they were never thought of as the most skilled or successful pilots.

And so, I can understand why ESPN ranked Earnhardt as the greatest driver of all time, but their logic is flawed, and their memory short. With apologies to the Earnhardt family, Richard Petty is and always will be the greatest race car driver of all time.

Long live the king.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” which can be seen on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on MY48 (cable channel 15).