HAMPTON, Ga. - Richard Petty wanted to end his 35-year NASCAR career in a blaze of glory. Instead, the king of stock-car racing just ended it in a blaze.
On lap 96 of yesterday's NASCAR 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Petty, stock-car racing's all-time victory leader with 200, couldn't avoid an accident involving five other cars. He smashed into Darrell Waltrip's car, spun and headed toward the infield with the underside of his car in flames.
Emergency crews quickly extinguished the fire, and Petty's car was towed to the garage. His crew spent the next 2 1/2 hours working on it, including replacing the radiator and oil cooling system. About 100 fans crowded into the area to watch mechanics huddle like doctors over a dying patient.
Although Petty got back in the car about 30 laps from the end of the race, he returned - without a hood - for only the final lap.
"I hate to go out that way," Petty said, "but I got out in a blaze without the glory. There's been so much good news. I want to say thanks once again for everything."
Bill Elliott won the race, finishing 7.7 seconds ahead of Alan Kulwicki. The second-place finish by Kulwicki gave him enough points to capture NASCAR's $1.3 million season points championship by 10 points, the closest margin in history.
After the race, Petty and his wife, Lynda, and other members of their family took a parade lap. "This is the saddest moment of my life," Lynda Petty said.
Also involved in the crash were Dick Trickle, Ken Schrader, Wally Dallenbach Jr. and Rich Bickle. Schrader and Trickle tried to pass Dale Jarrett at the same time and Trickle's car tapped Schrader's, filling the straightaway leading to Turn 1 with smoke. Petty entered the turn, didn't see Waltrip and crashed.
"You can't call all of the shots, and this is not one of the shots that I called," Petty said. "But that is what was dealt to me, and I will try to make the very best of it."
Petty finished 35th, completing 95 laps of his record 1,185th Winston Cup race. Petty qualified 39th in the 41-car field, but he was allowed to lead the field on two prerace laps. He dropped one lap behind the leader on lap 41, moving to the lower part of the track to allow Dale Earnhardt to pass him.
Petty, who will be the car owner next season with Rick Wilson as driver, retires with a record seven points championships. He also holds the record for consecutive starts (513), poles won (127), superspeedway wins (41) and wins in one season (27 in 1967).
Petty, 55, won six races in 65 starts at the Atlanta track. His last win was in 1977 and his last top-10 appearance here was in 1986.
He said he was disappointed not so much for himself as for the record 165,000 fans at the race.
"The fans didn't come here to see me wreck," Petty said while watching his crew work on the car. "I am disappointed for them that I didn't put on a better show."
Petty said he was more relieved for his family than for himself and that his early exit had not changed his retirement plans.
"I am pretty good at saying `never' and meaning it," he said. "Besides, Lynda is going to bury my helmet."
--------------------------------------- CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
-- Made stock-car racing debut July 12, 1958, finishing sixth in a 100-mile race at Columbia, S.C.
-- First win came July 18, 1959, in a 100-mile race at Columbia, S.C.
-- First of record 41, 500-mile victories came in 1964 Daytona 500.
-- Won at least one race a year from 1960 to 1977.
-- Set all-time record in 1967 with 27 victories, including record 10 in a row.
-- First driver to surpass $1 million in earnings by winning Dixie 500 on Aug. 19, 1971, at Atlanta Speedway.
-- Earned unprecedented seven NASCAR series titles - 1964, '67, '71, '72, '74, '75, '79.
-- Won seventh Daytona 500 in 1981.
-- Won 200th Winston Cup race July 4, 1984, at Daytona.
-- Won national Driver of the Year award in 1971.