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One year ago the motor sports world was stunned...

By DEBRA WILLIAMS

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One year ago the motor sports world was stunned by the news that Richard Petty had used illegal equipment to gain his 198th career victory.

NASCAR fined the seven-time Grand National champion $35,000, the largest in its history, and stripped him of his points in the battle for the national championship.

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Petty had an oversized engine in his Pontiac and softer left side tires on the right side, which gave his car better traction. But officials allowed his speedway win here to stand.

His victories now number 200, but some say that should be 199 because of last October's incident at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

'You don't make up for your mistakes,' Petty said as he sat in the door of the team's hauler before Sunday's Charlotte 500 race and chewed a cigar. 'If I win Sunday, besides giving me another win it would make sure I had 200 (victories). This would be a good place to do it. To do it like it is supposed to be done.

Benny Parsons has the pole for the 12:30 p.m. EDT Charlotte 500, a race that carries a $501,405 purse. The Chevrolet driver earned the top starting spot with a four-lap average speed of 165.579 mph. Bill Elliott shares the front row in a Ford. He claimed that starting position with 165.097 mph.

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'Time will take care of it (last year's incident),' Petty said in an interview. 'It started off as a black mark. As time progresses, it will get to be a gray mark, and then it will fade completely away.'

But the effect the incident has had on Grand National racing is still echoing through the garage area.

Rules governing engines and tires have been changed. Now, an engine not meeting the maximum size of 358 cubic inches after a three-hour cool down can draw a $5,000 fine. In addition, if any illegal engine is discovered during practice, qualifying, or a race or at the completion of a race, the driver and car owner will be fined and suspended from NASCAR for an indefinite period of time -- not less than 12 weeks or the next three Grand National races.

The regulation governing illegal tire use was changed to incorporate the completion of a race as well as practice and qualifying.

'The engines are now running much less than the maximum,' said Dick Beaty, Grand National director.

'Last year, (after the cool down period) the engines were running close to 357.9. Now, they're running around 357. They're just not taking a chance of being over any more because of the stiffer penalties.'

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Since everyone is abiding by the rules more closely this year, Petty said, the competition is closer.

'You don't see someone run fast who isn't supposed to run fast,' Petty said. 'They don't come out one weekend, run fast, and then don't do anything the next weekend. Everyone is more consistent.'

Ironically, the left side tires Petty's crew put on the Pontiac's right side for the final 100 miles in last October's race are the ones recommended this year for the right side.

In May, the drivers complained the tire compound designated for the track was too hard. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. technicans, along with drivers Bill Elliott and Neil Bonnett, spent two days testing at the 1 1/2-mile track in August. The result -- last year's left side tires for the right side and a softer compound on the left.

'You know they're good tires because they're the same tires Richard ran with last year,' David Pearson said.

Petty called last year's incident 'an expensive tire test I had to pay for.'

Most drivers believe the tires will mean an extremely competitive 500-mile race Sunday.

'They're much better tires than what we have had,' Cale Yarborough said. 'They're just a softer compound and they stick better. I don't think we'll have any problem with tire wear.'

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