RICHMOND, Va. -- Donning his trademark cowboy hat and wide grin, Richard Petty posed for photographs with children from the local Children's Miracle Network Hospital Friday morning at Richmond International Raceway.
It was the first time the Hall of Famer had been at a race track since his beloved wife of 55 years, Lynda, 72, passed away on March 25. And beyond the smiles, handshakes and polite greetings, it was obvious NASCAR's "King" was still grieving, still hurting.
His voice was soft and quivered at times speaking with a small handful of reporters.
"I'm still surviving," Petty said, his voice full of emotion. "I'm just going to have to live. ... (pause) It's going to be different, you know. Start all over again.
"Been fortunate all the kids came home for Easter and all the kids and grandkids and that really made things good."
Petty said the three races he missed during the last month mark the longest span away from the track -- ever -- and he's hopeful that being back will be a welcome distraction from what's been a sorrowful month.
"I just felt like I needed to sort of have a little time on our own, to be gone for two, three weeks," Petty said, pausing.
"But I'm back in the saddle now, learning to live all over again.
"The things we were supposed to do for the past three weeks were kinda put off, so we started Monday and we were in Georgia Monday, on Tuesday we were in Tennessee, Wednesday in Wyoming and got up there Thursday.
"The busier they keep me, the better it's going to be."
Both Marcos Ambrose and Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Aric Almirola expressed how pleased they were to have the boss trackside again -- important not only for the team, but also for Petty.
"He's our leader, he's the face of our race team," Almirola said. "To have him back and have him back on top of the trailer, back in the garage area is going to be big for me as a driver, but really big for our entire race team just to have his presence. It will be huge."
Petty acknowledged that he has been so genuinely touched by the outpouring of support from within the NASCAR community during this difficult time and seemed to perk up when speaking fondly of Lynda, even laughing at one recollection.
"It's just great that many people knew Lynda, of course she's been around a long time, too," Petty said smiling. "She never met a stranger. Every once in awhile I'd come in the house and see people I didn't even know; she'd invited them into the house, spend the night whatever.
"Again, it's just going to be different (for me)," he added.
Petty was especially moved to be a part of Friday's event with fans, children and Ambrose's No. 9 Stanley Ford racing team. Petty helped present a $100,000 check to the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals and was enthusiastic about supporting the "Racing for a Miracle" program.
If Ambrose wins Saturday night's Toyota Owners 400, Stanley -- through the Ace Hardware Foundation -- will donate $1 million to the program. If he finishes second, the company will write a check for $500,000, and a third-place finish would net $250,000.
Petty said spending time with the children was as good for him as it was for them.
"We've got troubles but a lot of other people have troubles and so ? like you see it with Victory Junction Gang Camp, we were so fortunate," Petty said. "We had four kids and 12 grandkids and every one of them is perfectly healthy and then you look around at all these others that aren't.
"You just want to give back."
In this case, it appeared to be working both ways.
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