The Bicentennial brought fireworks to Daytona International Speedway long before that season’s July 4 Firecracker 400. It was February 15, 1976 when NASCAR’s top two drivers squared off and produced one of the most thrilling finishes in the history of stock car racing.
Coming into the Daytona 500 that year, Richard Petty had won the race five times — and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship six times. His main rival David Pearson was winless in NASCAR’s premier event, despite having won the series title three times.
Pearson, you see, had developed a knack for failing to win the Daytona 500, in much the same manner that the dominant driver of the subsequent era, Dale Earnhardt, would.
In 1976, though, Petty and Pearson were overshadowed in the days leading up to the 500, by some Pole Day rule violations resulting in disqualification of the top three qualifiers — A.J. Foyt, Dave Marcis and Darrell Waltrip. Marcis and Waltrip came back to win the two qualifying races.
The early stages of the 500 saw a variety of leaders. But as the race progresses, contenders started faltering, some with engine problems, including Foyt. The last 100 miles belonged to Petty and Pearson.
Make that Pearson and Petty, for once listed in that order, when the checkered flag flew at the Daytona 500.
Rundown: The 1976 Daytona 500
The Favorites in ’76: Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, A.J. Foyt.
Intangible: The great David Pearson’s string of misfortune at the Daytona 500 simply had to end, some year.
The Winner’s Stats: David Pearson started nine times for 37 laps and averaged 152.181 mph.
The Race: The controversy after qualifying handed the original fourth-best qualifier, Ramo Stott, the pole position, creating the ultimate all-time NASCAR trivia question. … This race would be anything but trivial, as Pearson and Petty staged a down-the-stretch duel that culminated with their legendary last-lap collision. … With Petty leading on that last lap, Pearson passed him on the back straight. Petty returned the favor and reclaimed the lead in Turn 4 — right before his right rear caught Pearson’s left front. Both drivers lost control and slammed into the wall. Petty spun, then slid into the grass, merely 20 yards short of victory. Whereupon his car stalled. Behind him, here came Pearson, who had prevented his car from stalling by keeping his foot on the clutch, jammed to the floor. Pearson also went through the grass, then back onto the apron — eventually crossing the finish line first, at around 25 mph. Petty finished second, finally getting his car to hiccup across the stripe, with the help of a push from his frantic crew members.
Pearson’s Take: “I’ve been waiting a long time for this one.”
The Follow-Up: Petty came back to win the 500 two more times, padding the record of seven 500 titles he still holds. Pearson didn’t win the 500 again, but the victory cemented his own legend and further boosted the appeal of the Great American Race and NASCAR overall.