David Pearson Remembers
The 1976 Daytona 500
By Rick Houston
On the last lap of the 1976 Daytona 500, Richard Petty (43) and David Pearson crash coming off turn four. Pearson was able to roll under the checkered flag first, giving him his first and only win in the Daytona 500. (RacingOne Multimedia)
The 1979 Daytona 500. The last-lap wreck. The fight.
The 1990 Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt cuts a tire on the last lap. Derrike Cope wins.
The 1998 Daytona 500. Earnhardt wins, finally.
The 2007 Daytona 500. Mark Martin comes this close to his first Daytona 500 victory, only to have it snatched away by Kevin Harvick. Clint Bowyer adds to the fireworks by crossing the finish line on his lid.
And then … then there was the 1976 Daytona 500. No list of memorable Daytona 500s will ever be complete without this beauty. David Pearson … Richard Petty. Richard Petty … David Pearson. They’re at the very top of the all-time NASCAR win list, No. 1 and No. 2. They’re the only two drivers in NASCAR history with more than 100 wins, Petty with his magical 200 and Pearson with 105.
It was all but inevitable that the two would be involved in a finish for the ages, and in the 1976 Daytona 500, it happened. Pearson chased Petty down in the closing laps, and then charged past as they shot down the backstretch. Pearson slid up the track between turns three and four, allowing Petty to get back underneath.
They touched, triggering a rapid-fire chain of events that will live forever in NASCAR lore. Both crashed, but it was Pearson who was able to limp under the checkered flag to capture his one and only Daytona 500 victory.
In this exclusive interview with Stock Car History Online Editor Rick Houston, Pearson takes us back in time for an insider’s look at one incredible finish …
Stock Car History Online: What do you remember most about that day?
Pearson: Well, to tell you the truth, I remember all of it. Richard and myself, we’d been running back and forth pretty much all day long. All during the race, you always try. Him and myself, we always tried each other in different corners and find out where he’s the strongest at, and where you can beat them at or where they can beat you at.
I had been trying, different times, to get him to pass me, back and forth. Of course, he’d do the same thing. Ever who was leading would slow up a little bit, hoping the other one would get back around when it came down to the end of the race.
Finally, there at the end, he was leading the race. Of course, I wouldn’t pass him. I waited until the last lap to go by him. Going down the backstretch, I drafted by him. That day, he had so much more power than I did. He was running so much better than I was. I even accused him of having a big engine. I understand he might’ve had one that day.
When I went by him, when I went into three, he just ducked down right under me and just come on back around me right then. Coming off of four, he came up high and of course, I got as high as I could get without hitting him. He came on up and his right rear hit my left front. That spun us both around.
When you’re spinning around, I kept mine running. I’ve always heard that if you spin a car, always mash the clutch in. Don’t let the motor run backwards. If it did, it’d bend the valves and all the stuff like that. So I’ve always just kept mine running. When I pushed my clutch in, I kept mine running. They said I was asking them, “Where is Richard?” while I was still in the smoke. I couldn’t see where he was at. They said I was on the radio while I was spinning where Richard was.
He had stopped a good ways before you get to the finish line, I guess, what, 75, a hundred yards away, something like that. He stopped there, and his car wasn’t running. He’d done let it choke down. I kept mine running, turned around and come on past him and won the race.
Stock Car History Online: Did you know where he was once you got going again?
Pearson: Yeah, I could see him out there. After the smoke cleared, I could see him sitting out there on the race track. In fact, they told me he was stalled there, when he was stopped right there before he got to the start-finish line.
Stock Car History Online: I’ve never heard the claim about Richard having a big engine.
Pearson: You ain’t ever heard that? He’s been caught a time or two down there at Daytona with that. Of course, they don’t let you know nothing. All they do is fine you. They don’t report it, nothing like that. In fact, I think that was the car they told ‘em not to even bring back. I know when the President (Ronald Reagan) came (for the July 4, 1984 Firecracker 400), he was running a car he wasn’t even supposed to run. They told him the year before not to bring it back. I understand he had a big one that day.
Stock Car History Online: I hadn’t heard that about the ‘76 race.
Pearson: You just don’t ever know. I don’t know, either. It’s just hearsay, but I know he just came right back around with no problem a’tall.
Stock Car History Online: You said you were trying to get him to pass you. Why was that?
Pearson: You always wanted to be running second and draft by ‘em on the last lap. Used to, a long time ago, we used to could be drafting and pass coming off of four and beat ‘em to the start-finish line. But now, with restrictor plates and things, you have to do it earlier. Now, you do it over on the backstretch instead of waiting so late.
A lot of times now, it all depends on where the draft is, how many cars is in the draft and stuff like that. It all depends on who is running third. You might want to do it before, on the white flag lap. It all depends on who you’re racing with and where you can beat them at and where they can beat you at, and also who’s running third or fourth, anywhere along in there, bunched together.
Stock Car History Online: Is that just a product of the restrictor plate?
Pearson: Yeah, that’s more or less what it is. Used to, even if it was just two cars, you could draw back. You need to draw back a little bit and get your momentum going … so you have your speed up. When you get up to ‘em, you just pull out and go right on by ‘em. If they’re faster than you are, you’ll never get by ‘em. You’ve gotta use the draft and drop back a little bit, get your speed up, get your momentum going and go around ‘em that way.
Stock Car History Online: How would you describe your relationship with Richard?
Pearson: We’ve always been friends. We’d sit and talk to each other. As far as outrunning each other and stuff like that, I felt like if I beat him, I would probably win the race. I understand he thought the same way about me. I always enjoyed running with him, because I knew what he was gonna do. He did the same thing every lap, where some of the guys you run with, you don’t ever know what they’re gonna do.
They might do something different one lap and the next lap, do something else. You just never knew where they was gonna run or how far they was gonna run until they backed off. They might run one lap wide open and the next lap, back off. They ain’t got the rhythm down right, the way they’re gonna run. Richard and myself, we always knew what each other was gonna do and how we was gonna do it.
Stock Car History Online: When people talk about great Daytona 500 finishes, they talk about the finish of the 1976, 1979 and 2007 races. Which do you consider the best?
Pearson: I think the best was in ‘76 … I won. Fan-wise … I don’t know. It all depends on who you’re pulling for. That makes a big difference. I don’t know what they would say.