Countdown to Daytona: Richard Petty, David Pearson clash in thrilling 1976 finish

When it comes to Daytona 500 races, one of the most significant in NASCAR history occurred in 1976, with the 18th running of the Great American Race.

And with the 59th Daytona 500 just 18 days away — it airs Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. ET on FOX — we look back at the ’76 race, a true clash of the Titans between Richard Petty and David Pearson, the two most successful racers in NASCAR history.

Over their long careers, Petty won 200 NASCAR Premier Series races to Pearson’s 105. No driver has equaled or surpassed those totals. And Petty and Pearson finished 1-2 a NASCAR record 63 times, with Pearson winning 33 of the 1-2 battles to 30 for Petty.

In the 1976 Daytona 500, Petty took the white flag in the lead, his No. 43 Petty Blue and Day-Glo Red Dodge ahead of the iconic No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Mercury.

On the backstretch, Pearson went low, pushing hard for the win. Pearson took the lead going into Turn 3, with Petty moving to the bottom line to try and re-pass Pearson as the two entered Turn 4.

As they exited Turn 4, Petty was ahead of Pearson, but he got loose, drifted up the track and made contact with Pearson, sending the Wood Brothers Mercury nose first into the frontstretch wall.

Petty hit the wall a split second later, when he was well ahead of Pearson. But just as it appeared Petty would take the checkered flag and win another 500, his car spun into the infield and stalled, just yards short of the start-finish line.

David Pearson celebrates in Victory Lane with his heavily damaged No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing car after winning the 1976 Daytona 500.

Pearson, meanwhile, was able to re-fire his heavily damaged Mercury and limped to the checkered flag, taking the victory.

“He went around me … and I dove on under him and when I did, the front end broke loose and got him sideways,” said Petty.

“I drafted by him going down the backstretch and naturally, I guess, his car got to pushing or something and he just pushed right on up into me and spun me around and I got into the wall,” said Pearson in Victory Lane.

There were no hard feelings, just two warriors who had given their all, producing a finish that will be remembered for the ages.