David Pearson and Richard Petty crashed together while racing for th lead on the final lap of the 1976 Daytona 500. Pearson would limp his car across the finish line to win the race. (RacingOne/Getty Images)
David Pearson and Richard Petty crashed together while racing for th lead on the final lap of the 1976 Daytona 500. Pearson would limp his car across the finish line to win the race. (RacingOne/Getty Images)

The Petty Vs. Pearson Era

Many of those races were quite memorable, such as the 1974 Firecracker 400 at Daytona Int’l Speedway. Petty was second and on leader Pearson’s bumper as the pair took the white flag. Pearson backed off the throttle considerably, making Petty swerve to the high groove and out of the draft. That forced Petty to go along the wall and overtake Pearson in order to avoid a collision. Pearson dropped back some 50 car lengths but used a slingshot move to retake the lead and beat Petty to the checkered flag.

“They took the white flag and David let off,” Inman explained. “Richard came pretty close to hitting him. All the sudden, he passed him and he was so much faster than we were he passed us going into turn three. He claimed he needed to be running second. I don’t think there was any way we could have won the race. He came back and beat us anyway. I was upset but Richard was really upset. I think he talked with David about it later.”

The most famous run-in between the two came on the final lap of the 1976 Daytona 500. The two cars touched exiting the fourth turn with both crashing into the wall. Pearson kept his engine running and crossed the start-finish at 20 mph before Petty could get his car’s engine restarted.

“You know, I think we were in control when we went through the fourth turn,” Petty said. “Then David tapped me and that started me spinning.” 

Pearson added, “I’m not sure what happened. He went beneath me and his car broke loose, I got into the wall and came off and hit him. That’s what started all the spinning I think.” 

With millions of fans watching on television, the finish created quite a stir. Both drivers appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” giving NASCAR even more national exposure.

Pearson won 10 races in 1976, including the Triple Crown (Daytona 500, World 600 and Southern 500) nine years before the inaugural Winston Million was won by Bill Elliott in 1985. 

Their first one-two finish was Aug. 8, 1963, at Columbia (S.C.) Speedway with Petty besting Pearson. The final one-two finish came on the road course at Riverside Int’l Raceway on June 12, 1977. It was Petty’s 184th career victory.

Richard Petty celebrates a victory at Daytona in 1974. (ISC Archives via Getty Images)
Richard Petty celebrates a victory at Daytona in 1974. (ISC Archives via Getty Images)

When Pearson died at the age of 83 on Nov. 12, 2018, Petty said, “I have always been asked who my toughest competitor in my career was. The answer has always been David Pearson.  David and I raced together throughout our careers and battled each other for wins — most of the time finishing first or second to each other.

“It wasn’t a rivalry, but more mutual respect. David is a Hall of Fame driver who made me better. He pushed me just as much as I pushed him on the track. We both became better for it.”

Len Wood, son of Glen Wood and current co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing, remembers Pearson as relaxed, even at 200 mph. 

“David was so good as a race car driver because he was the coolest and calmest racer I’ve ever known,” said Len Wood. “When they talk about lighting a cigarette going down a straightaway and looking over at Buddy Baker and smiling and Baker fighting it for all it was worth, that says it all. Pearson was on a Sunday afternoon ride. He was an exceptional driver. When you paired David with Leonard Wood, I won’t say they were unbeatable, but it was a very tough combination.” 

Len Wood’s brother and team co-owner, Eddie Wood, shared similar thoughts.

“David was smart. He didn’t wreck very many of our cars when he drove for us,” Eddie Wood said. “People collect NASCAR sheet metal today but there isn’t a lot of David’s sheet metal out there because he hardly ever crashed. The reason he didn’t was he had a sense for what was going to happen and for danger in front of him. He could sense when trouble was coming or when someone was over their head or about to get in trouble. Plus, he was just an incredibly great race car driver.”  

Inman, a NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee in 2012, commented on Petty’s success.

“Richard understood the car,” Inman said. “We built cars around Richard. He understood what we were doing. He understood what the car would do. He drove it and his confidence level was just unbelievable. 

“He had great people behind him as well,” Inman added. “He will also say if he didn’t have me helping him, he would have won 400 races instead of 200.” 

The friendly Petty Vs. Pearson rivalry may always be known as the greatest in NASCAR history.

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