Excerpt from Great Rivalries Have Roots Deep Within Sport’s Core
By Joe Menzer, NASCAR.COM
August 29, 2008
David Pearson had the last laugh, in Victory Lane after the 1976 Daytona 500.
1. Richard Petty vs. David Pearson
Getty ImagesDavid Pearson had the last laugh, in Victory Lane after the 1976 Daytona 500.
This one manifested itself in the 1976 Daytona 500, but had been going on for many years prior to that epic event. In the 13 seasons prior to the running of the race that neither of them would ever forget, they had finished one-two in a remarkable 57 races — with David Pearson winning 29 times and Richard Petty 28.
Long-time NASCAR journalist Bill Robinson once wrote, “What could be more beautiful than Petty and Pearson, side by side, flat out and belly to the ground, racing toward a hurrying sundown?”
While the two drivers respected each other, there was no love lost between them. In the 1975 Daytona 500, won by Benny Parsons, Petty had infuriated Pearson by towing Parsons in his draft until Parsons could get within striking distance of Pearson, who was leading the race at the time. Petty was eight laps down and could have simply gotten out of Parsons’ way, leaving him to attempt catching Pearson unassisted by aerodynamics. When Cale Yarborough and Richie Panch forced Pearson into an unfortunate spin on the backstretch late in the race, Parsons — courtesy of Petty — was in position to take advantage. He passed Pearson, who eventually had to settle for fourth, and went on to the victory.
“The race I’ll be remembered most for, and the one I’ll remember most, is the one I lost”–Richard Petty
Petty considered it payback for one time in 1974 when Pearson had duped him in the Firecracker 400, the July race at Daytona. Knowing that it was best to be in second coming down the stretch at the superspeedways, where the driver directly behind the leader could use he draft to execute the slingshot pass, Pearson didn’t like the fact that he was the leader as they came around to take the white flag, signifying just one lap to go.
So as they approached the start-finish line, Pearson slowed and held up his arm out of his driver’s side window as though he had car trouble. Petty drove by, and Pearson grinned to himself. Then he gunned his engine, quickly snuggled his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing machine behind the No. 43 Petty Enterprises car, and moved into position for the slingshot pass. He executed it to perfection going down the homestretch and won the race.
But it was in the ’76 Daytona 500 where the rivalry peaked. The two drivers were running one-two once again as they headed into Turn 3 toward a quickly setting sun on the final lap that afternoon, when Pearson executed a slingshot pass and vaulted into the lead. But when he drifted just a little too high up the track, Petty dove under him to retake the lead.
Through Turn 4, Petty actually surged ahead by half a car length. But as they exited the turn, this time it was Petty who drifted high. The right rear of his No. 43 Dodge caught the left front of Pearson’s No. 21 Mercury — turning it nose-first into the wall before Pearson spun into the infield and on toward pit road, where he came to rest facing the wrong way at the entrance to the pit areas. Petty’s car fishtailed for 200 yards or more down the frontstretch and then turned head-on into the wall as well.
Even as he was spinning out of control, Pearson remained calm behind the wheel. He rammed in the clutch as he hit the wall, revving his engine in a last-ditch effort to keep it running no matter what was going to happen next. Petty’s car, meanwhile, bounced off the wall and slid to a stop in the grassy infield less than a football field short of the finish line and what would have been his sixth Daytona 500 victory. But his engine died, and he could not restart it.
Pearson was able to keep his wounded engine running, and soon crawled past the dead Petty machine a few feet at a time — whereas both men had been dueling at nearly 200 miles an hour only seconds earlier. Pearson crossed the finish line and claimed his first and what would be his only Daytona 500 victory.
Petty, of course, went on to win a record 200 races and seven points championships. Pearson remains second on the all-time list in victories with 105, and won three championships. They also rank one-two in career poles, with Petty claiming 126 to Pearson’s 113.
To this day, Petty still laments the outcome in the ’76 Daytona 500, saying, “The race I’ll be remembered most for, and the one I’ll remember most, is the one I lost.”
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