Kyle Petty’s First NASCAR Win in 1986 Added to Legacies of 2 Legendary Racing Families

“I think we’re leading! I think we’re going to win this thing!”

Kyle Petty clearly remembers those words and will for the rest of his life. They came more than 35 years ago, when crew chief Eddie Wood keyed his microphone to tell Petty they were about to win the Miller High Life 400 at the half-mile Richmond Raceway in Virginia’s capital city.

This was late Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, 1986.

In the second race of the NASCAR Cup Series season—a week after Geoffrey Bodine had won the Daytona 500—Petty was about to take the race-ending caution flag (this was before overtime) for the first of his eight career victories. (He also won at Charlotte for Wood Brothers Racing, then Watkins Glen, Pocono, Dover, and three times at Rockingham for owner Felix Sabates).

Kyle’s grandfather, Lee, won twice at Richmond in the 1950s and his father, Richard, won 13 times there, including six straight between the fall of 1970 and spring of 1973. And now it was the latest Petty’s turn, four slow laps from his first victory in his 170th career start, his 30th in his second season with Wood Brothers Racing.

To this day, Petty acknowledges he was lucky. But he steadfastly stands by his family’s long-held belief about racing: “The fans said we were lucky and the media said we were lucky… because we were lucky,” the long-retired, 60-year-old TV commentator recently told Auto Week. “But nobody within the four walls of the NASCAR garages said it because they’ve all been there. The scales of racing justice eventually even out; you get one here, you lose one there. It’s happened to everybody at one time or another.”

Other than his fondness for the half-mile, low-banked, outdated track, Petty didn’t sense anything particularly special that weekend. “I remember we had good pizza the night before,” he said blithely. “And I always enjoyed Richmond because Richmond and Martinsville (also in Virginia) were big Petty tracks. Those people loved them some Richard Petty. It was a nice day and I had a great ride with the Woods, so I remember it felt like it could be a good day. Nothing specific, just an overall feeling that we might do pretty well.”

Petty, competitive all day in the No. 7 7-Eleven Ford, approached the final laps running fifth. He would been ecstatic with that finish since most of his other 169 career starts had been on longer tracks; only a few dozen on the circuit’s five short tracks. All of which led him to quip: “Who would have ever envisioned me winning on a short track? It was like throwing me in the ocean and telling me to get back to the shore.”

Fortunes changed abruptly down the stretch. Second-running Dale Earnhardt hooked the right-rear of new leader Darrell Waltrip and turned him into the Armco in Turns 3-4 on lap 397. Next, third- and fourth-place Joe Ruttman and Bodine plowed into the scene, taking themselves out. Finally, the lapped cars of Trevor Boys and Buddy Arrington were involved to all but totally block the track.

Meanwhile, back over in Turns 1-2: “I looked across the infield and saw them wrecking,” Petty said. “That’s how far behind I was, about half-a-track. I went down the backstretch and saw people slowing down for the yellow lights. At that point, I wasn’t sure if they were lapped cars or what. So, I slowed down and geared down, and picked my way through (Turns) 3 and 4, behind some other cars. Man, there was carnage everywhere.

“I was running really slow until I got by the wreck, then went back up the gears to take the yellow. That’s when Eddie came on the radio and said he thought we were leading and that we were going to win. I said something like, ‘No (freaking) way, man.’ But we did, and I’ll never apologize for winning like that.”

The track had no “jumbotron” at the time, so Wood couldn’t see the accident from pit road. But the reaction of fans across from him let him know something big had just happened. “I didn’t say anything to Kyle on the radio until he came through (Turn) 4 ahead of everybody else,” Wood recalled. “I didn’t know he was leading until I saw him come around the corner. That’s when I said I thought he was leading and we were going to win. We were lucky at the end, but we’d been pretty good all day. We were going to finish good, anyway.”

Petty was the third Cup Series driver to get his breakthrough victory with the Woods. Team founder Glen Wood was first in 1960, followed by Tiny Lund in ‘63, Petty in ‘86, Dale Jarrett in ‘91, Elliott Sadler in ‘01, Trevor Bayne in ’11, and Ryan Blaney in ‘17. All told, 17 drivers have contributed to the family-owned team’s 99 victories.

None could have been as happy as Kyle, whose role to maintain the Petty legacy must have felt overwhelming at times. “Let me tell you, man,” he said, “that was a big day for all of us. No doubt, after everybody they’d had for them (he followed David Pearson, Neil Bonnett, and Buddy Baker), I was a step back. So, that win was big for the Woods. Big for me. Big for my family. It was a (financially helpful) Winners Circle win. And it was good for the sponsors (7-Eleven and CITGO).

“Daddy didn’t come to victory lane or the hauler, but I’m sure I saw him somewhere later that afternoon. We were never a real touchy-feely kind of family. It was always that we were expected to win, expected to do our job and win without a lot of emotion. But I know he was happy and proud, and my mother was, too. No matter how we got there that afternoon, winning Richmond was a big day for the Pettys and the Woods.”

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories by Autoweek senior motorsports writer Al Pearce on the first wins in the NASCAR Cup Series for some of the sport’s great personalities. Who would you like Al to track down for you? Let us know in the comments section below.

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