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February 19, 2018

Richard Petty energized by Bubba Wallace’s fast start to 2018

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Richard Petty, who ascended to the role of NASCAR’s King through his engaging personality and his 200 career victories, did something Sunday he rarely ever does: Turned down an autograph request. Multiples, actually.

“Not right now, buddy,” he repeated as the 80-year-old stock-car legend rode a purposeful gait from pit road through the NASCAR garage. His trademark curlicued signature would have to wait. The King was in a hurry to find his driver, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., who handed Richard Petty Motorsports its best finish since 2016, and in the sport’s biggest race.

“Getting some exercise,” Petty said as he briskly made his way.

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Petty finally found Wallace in the infield care center at Daytona International Speedway after a second-place finish in his first Daytona 500. His stride was interrupted only by a wrecker towing Wallace’s scraped-up No. 43 Chevrolet back to the garage across his path.

Wallace was unhurt, but the trip was mandatory after his car screeched to a halt after the checkered flag in a broadside battle with Denny Hamlin’s No. 11. But Petty’s initial reaction might’ve made more treatment for Wallace a necessity.

“They were checking his blood pressure, and I walked in and said, ‘What was the last thing I told you?'” Petty recalled. ” ‘I don’t know’ … I said, ‘don’t tear up my car’ and there the car is, bringing it in. He just went out. I think his blood pressure went to 330. I wasn’t going to blame him, that’s for dang sure.”

“So we shared a good laugh,” Wallace said, “and he came in and gave me a big hug after that. To see the smile on his face, I think you had to be there to experience that moment. All the liaisons in there were pretty nervous for me, too, until he cracked the joke.”

RELATED: Wallace makes special stop | Bubba emotional after runner-up finish

Wallace’s runner-up result in Sunday’s Great American Race helped cap the build-up to his rookie season with a steady yet adventurous career-best in NASCAR’s big leagues. In doing so, he helped firm up his place in the RPM organization beyond his four-race audition last season.

“I’ve said it a lot in the last 10 minutes: We’ve had him five weeks, and in five weeks, we’ve ended the race saying, ‘This kid can do it,’ ” said crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. “He does everything right when we have him in the race car, and this is another example of it. He took when he needed to take, and he gave when he needed to give. He’s done a great job, so he continues to impress us.”

Which is why Petty was so eager to be reunited with Wallace after 500-plus miles of racing. The two shared a special post-race moment after a third-place effort in a Thursday qualifying race, with Petty throwing his arm around the young driver’s shoulder. Sunday was primed to be an even bigger repeat celebration.

So Petty whisked past the well-wishers to toast Wallace’s day, with a speed that most octogenarians lack. Wallace’s arrival may have rejuvenated Petty’s outlook, but the NASCAR Hall of Famer suggested that the opposite force may be in play.

“I’m trying to give him energy,” Petty said. “I’ve got plenty.”