The 54th running of NASCAR’s biggest, most prestigious, race is on the horizon. The Daytona 500 is to stock car racing what the Super Bowl is to American Football. It’s the ultimate race, and winning it can make a driver’s career.
There have been plenty of thrills and spills at Daytona International Speedway over the past five decades, but none were quite as dramatic as the grandstand finish of 1976, when NASCAR’s top two drivers produced one of the most dramatic finishes in the history of stock car racing.
David Pearson and Richard Petty had waged many battles in the lead up to the ’76 Daytona 500, but despite being crowned Winston Cup champion three times, Pearson had developed a knack for failing to win NASCAR’s premier event.
The early stages of that year’s 500 saw a variety of leaders but, with the exception of one lap lead by Benny Parsons, Pearson and Petty dominated the last 46 laps of the race, swapping positions on three occasions.
As the race entered its final lap, Pearson drafted his way pass Petty on the back straight and the duo ran side-by-side as they came through Turn 4 – before Petty’s attempt to reclaim the lead saw him trade paint with his rival, and both drivers eventually lost control just 100 yards short of the finishing line.
“I’m not sure what happened,” said Pearson post-race. “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.”
Petty’s heavily damaged car careered into the infield before stalling. Pearson, however, spun towards the pit entrance and made contact with Joe Frasson’s car, but through it all, managed to keep his engine running. With smoke billowing from his car, he wobbled his way to victory at a tortoise-like pace in what many deem to be the greatest finish in the history of NASCAR.
“For a minute, I thought I was going to become the first driver to win the Daytona 500 backwards,” Pearson remarked at the time.
But win the Daytona 500 he did.
And Petty? Well he was classified second due to there being no other driver on the lead lap, although he would require a push to get him across the finish line. His disappointment wouldn’t linger for too long however, as he went on to bag two more 500 victories, taking his tally to seven. A record that still stands to this very day.