He will climb atop of one of the team haulers Saturday night as he always does, finding solitude in the roar of 43 engines churning along Daytona's super-speedway.
The moonlit skies will cast an iconic silhouette of a tall, slim man wearing sunglasses, a cowboy hat, long sleeve shirt, jeans with a big 'ol belt buckle, and cowboy boots.
He will take off one of his signature Charlie 1 Horse feathery hats and replace it with a headset, filtering out the restrictor-plate noise. He will then pick out two cars, the 43 and the 9, and the two drivers who are unlikely partners keeping the family business going.
Marcos Ambrose is from Tasmania. Aric Almirola is a Florida native of Cuban descent. Reflective of America's diverse melting pot, they are representing a name etched in NASCAR royalty, complete with the Southern twang and the occasional pinch of chewing tobacco.
The faithful call him that. The guys who stop by the old Petty shop in Level Cross, N.C., to bring him barbecue and a big cookie to commemorate his birthday every year. The little old lady in a nursing home who recently met the King at his shop because that is a big-ticket item on her bucket list. The guy who said he would never wash this T-shirt again after Petty signed it on the shoulder sleeve. All the folks who put STP in their Fords and Chevys and Plymouths because they wanted a little zip in their car, just like King Richard.
These are among the legion of fans who watched him rumble on dirt tracks and ovals and super-speedways like no one else in the history of the sport.
At 21, Petty got into a seat of a convertible in a dirt-track race in Columbia, S.C., in 1958 and didn't stop until 1992, on a quad-oval in Atlanta. Appropriately, he went out in flames after his car was involved in an accident. Petty finished 35th and then took a final ceremonial lap for the NASCAR Nation.
For all those years, they screamed and whooped and cried as that fabled No. 43 Ford or Plymouth Superbird in Petty Blue kept on spinning 'round, a blurry haze of greatness: Seven NASCAR Cup titles, seven Daytona 500 victories and a record 200 victories, including 27 in one season.
Richard was even better than his daddy, Lee, a former bootlegger and one of the pioneers of a once-fledging NASCAR empire. With 54 career wins in his pocket, Lee gave the car keys to Richard and told him to ramble on. The son eclipsed anything the old man ever did, until it became time for a third generation of Pettys to reach for greatness.
The odds were impossible. Richard's son Kyle tried and failed. His grandson Adam was poised to make a run at it until a horrific day in May 12 years ago.
But reflection isn't in Petty's blood. As he says, "anything that happened 10 minutes ago is history." The clock continues ticking as Richard Petty turns 75 on July 2. He moves forward as a man of Southern royalty, with pride and purpose.
That's why he will make the short climb Saturday night at the Coke Zero 400, away from all the fans wanting pictures and handshakes and autographs. And like any good patriarch in a family-owned business, he will watch Ambrose and Almirola trying to recapture some of that Petty magic.
That vision once included a son and a grandson, spinning side by side. Now it's an alternate reality. But this is what you do when you are King: You rise above the circumstances, never looking back at what could have been.
An audience with the king
Jerry Harris and his four buddies arrive at the Richard Petty Garage in Level Cross, lunch goodies in their hands. They've brought chicken, pork, cornsticks, and slaw from Parker's Barbeque in Greenville, N.C. A giant cookie that reads "#43 Happy Birthday King Richard" will be split for dessert.
For the last six years, Harris has been coming to the old team shop for Petty Enterprises to celebrate the King's birthday. He had to stop by for a decade before he actually met Petty, but his persistence has now been rewarded: Lunch with the King.
This kind of quirky stuff goes on every day at the shop. Nobody ever gets turned away. Like Harris, people come and sit for hours, hoping the King shows up. Accessibility is the essence of Richard Petty's popularity, why he remains one of the most beloved sports superstar of this generation. Petty doesn't treat people like servants. The King never asks anyone to kiss his ring. Instead, he smiles, hugs them, poses for pictures, signs and signs, never asking for a penny.