At Martinsville, Chief's No. 41 to ride again
October 22, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The reunion was completed in May, when the final member of a Petty Enterprises powerhouse not in the NASCAR Hall of Fame earned his place in the shrine. And it was reinforced on Tuesday, when within sight of a No. 42 car that Lee Petty drove to three titles, and a No. 43 car Richard Petty and Dale Inman rode to seven championships, a No. 41 car was unveiled with the image of Maurice Petty on the hood.
Richard Petty Motorsports on Tuesday showed off a Maurice Petty tribute car that Aric Almirola will drive this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, honoring the great engine builder's forthcoming enshrinement as part of the 2014 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. No surprise it will take place at Martinsville, a track where the Petty team has won 19 times, 15 of them propelled by Maurice Petty power. The surprise was on the vehicle itself, where the famous No. 43 of Petty's flagship vehicle was replaced by another number from the family tradition.
Almirola will pilot the No. 41, the car Maurice himself drove in a short career behind the wheel that spanned just 26 races. NASCAR has allowed RPM to make the change while still accruing points for the No. 43. That means if Almirola prevails Sunday in southern Virginia, it would still break the winless skid for the No. 43 car that dates back to John Andretti's victory at Martinsville in 1999, even though the numeral on the side won't be the same.
"I'm tickled to death to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame," said Maurice, who will be inducted on Jan. 29. "That’s the icing on the cake, with this car."
Sunday's race will be the first in the Sprint Cup Series without the iconic No. 43 in the starting field since Atlanta in October of 2003, when former Petty driver Jeff Green was one of six who failed to qualify. The number also skipped the 1993 season, the first after Richard Petty retired, when the Petty organization fielded a No. 44 instead. But it was returned to competition the following year, and has been in use ever since.
"It is kind of weird, but to me it goes back to same thing we did when we first started," Richard said of the No. 43's absence this weekend. "Dad's number was 42. We just took the two off and put a three on there. We just took the three off my car and put a one on the thing."
Indeed, Tuesday's ceremony took place near the NASCAR Hall of Fame's Glory Road, where the No. 42 car of Lee Petty and the No. 43 of Richard are on display along with those of a number of other NASCAR champions. Although best known for his work as an engine builder, Maurice Petty also served as crew chief and driver, posting a best finish of third at the old Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds track in 1961. His final start behind the wheel came in 1964 at Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsboro, N.C., where he piloted the No. 41.
"I could have made more," he said, "but it was costing more to run me, and we were going broke pretty fast, so something had to be done."
Richard said the team wanted the tribute to be at Martinsville, long one of the Petty family's best tracks. "We didn't want to go to a race track where we'd never won," he said. "That wouldn't look good." Maurice's enshrinement will complete one of the sport's best teams in the Hall of Fame, coming on the heels of Richard's selection to the inaugural class in 2010, Lee's in the second class in 2011, and crew chief Inman's in the third class in 2012.
According to the King, none of it would have been possible without the man they call "Chief," who built engines that set the standard long before the modern tools of today.
"To look back and look at all the people who made it happen, it's really something," Richard said. "Chief couldn’t do it by himself, I couldn't do it by myself, Dale didn't do it by himself. We did it as a group under Petty Enterprises. … This is kind of the crowning deal of all those years."
The old Petty Enterprises team has since been absorbed into the entity now known as RPM, which is co-owned by New York entrepreneur Andrew Murstein. But the Petty legacy is still a very real thing -- especially to Almirola, who when he first came to North Carolina years ago looking for engines for his late model stock car, was pointed toward a Maurice Petty and Associates shop that at the time was still making engines in the original Petty Enterprises facility in Level Cross.
"He's been around a bit," Maurice said of the current driver of the No. 43 car.
This weekend, make that the No. 41.
"I keep saying over and over I want to get that 43 car back to Victory Lane," said Almirola, who finished fourth at Martinsville last fall. "I guess I'm going to have to change my mindset on that this weekend. I want to get the 41 car back to Victory Lane."