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Pearson remembered as one of NASCAR's greatest drivers

Jeff Birchfield • Nov 13, 2018 at 7:05 PM

David Pearson never craved the limelight, but he was one of NASCAR’s biggest stars during a remarkable racing career.

While there is the current “Big 3” of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. competing for a championship this weekend in Miami, it pales in comparison of how the “Big 4” of Richard Petty, Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough dominated NASCAR racing over a 14-year stretch from 1966-79.

During that span, the group combined to win 12 of 14 championships, nine of 14 Daytona 500s  and 360 NASCAR races overall.

While there is always debate on the Mount Rushmore of athletes in different sports, those four clearly were the Mount Rushmore of NASCAR drivers in the 1970s.

Pearson, nicknamed “The Silver Fox,” was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011. He died Monday at 83.

He earned three Cup Series championships in the No. 6 Cotton Owens-owned Dodge (1966) and the No. 17 Holman-Moody Ford (1968-69), but he was most noted for driving the No. 21 Mercury for the Wood Brothers.

Pearson won 43 races for the Wood Brothers from 1972-79 and was involved in one of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history when he and Petty were battling for the win on the final corner of the 1976 Daytona 500. They got together and crashed, sending both down the track into the grass infield. Quick on his feet, Pearson was able to re-fire his engine and go 30 mph across the line to win the race.

While they raced hard, there was great respect between Petty and Pearson, whose 105 career wins rank second to Petty's 200 for the most in NASCAR history.

"I have always been asked who my toughest competitor in my career was. The answer has always been David Pearson," Petty said. "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."

Fans from the era will often debate who was the greatest. Some point to Petty with his multiple NASCAR records, while others make a case for Pearson, who held a 33-30 advantage over Petty in races which they finished 1-2, and had a higher career winning percentage than Petty.

Whatever the case, there is no denying Pearson is one of the greatest to ever sit behind the wheel and his record of 11 wins in 18 starts during the 1973 season is one of the sport's all-time best performances.

Another of Pearson's records that will likely never be broken is 11 straight pole positions at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Always a great qualifier, Pearson's 113 poles rank second only to 123 poles for Petty. However, Pearson's number came in just 574 starts, compared to 1,184 starts for Petty.

His speed during qualifying belied Pearson's racing style. During an era when the cars weren't as durable, Pearson would often run a steady pace and save his car for the end of the race — when he would speed by the competition.

Pearson didn't always get the credit he deserved amongst the newer generations of fans. He was the most successful NASCAR driver ever for the Ford Motor Company with 74 wins coming in either Ford or Mercury brands.

Ironically, his last two victories were in a Chevrolet and both at Darlington, where Pearson's 10 wins rank as the track record.

He was a substitute for the injured Dale Earnhardt when he won the 1979 Southern 500 in the No. 2 Rod Osterlund-owned Chevrolet, and his final win came in the 1981 Rebel 500 while driving the No. 1 Hoss-Ellington-owned Chevy.

His racing career started in 1953 on a dirt track at his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and decades after his NASCAR career was over, Pearson returned to the dirt to race at nearby Riverside Speedway. In his 70s, Pearson dominated the competition.

That's not to be confused with the old Riverside road course in California, where Pearson won in the Trans-Am Series driving Mustangs prepared by NASCAR Hall of Fame car owner Bud Moore, also a Spartanburg resident.

Big tracks, short tracks — like Bristol Motor Speedway, where he had five wins — paved tracks, dirt tracks and road courses, David Pearson was one of the greatest ever to get behind the wheel of a stock car. 

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