A man approached Richard Petty in the garage. He had a business deal. With Petty's permission, the man would make up big cloth patches bearing the stock-car driver's picture.Folks would buy the patch and sew it on their jackets.

"The colors don't fade," the patch man said. "Look at these." He handed some patches to Petty. Saying nothing. Petty examined them. The man senses that Petty was interested in the deal and said, "You can keep those for a while."

"Naw," Petty said, handing the patches back. They bore pictures of drivers named Cale Yarborough and David Pearson. "These ain't my favorite drivers," Petty said.

An uncommon man who is genuinely loved on his turf not only for his excellence but his kindliness, Petty said those words softly and with a small laugh. But his manner did not deny the truth of his words, for Petty, Pearson and Yarborough are to stock-car racers what Palmer, Player and Nicklaus once were to golf, what Connors, Borg and Vilas are to tennis. These men would be king.

The days are gone when big-time stock car racing was just dressed-up booze-running. If the game was born on mountain roads when men drove fast cars with trunks full of moonshine, it now has grown into a sophisticated, multi-million dollar operation whose center-piece, todays Daytona 500, will attract 100,000 spectators and a national television audience. ANd these men, Petty and Pearson and Yarborough, are a piece of the past. a piece of the future. No one can pretend to the throne unless dealing first with this triumvirate of speed.

In the South, they are demi-gods. The Petty smile, with those teeth sparkling, could ave been the prototype for a smile that sent a Georgia stock-car fan to the White House. Everyone knows Pearson striking countenance, that pinched, strong face framed by going-silcer sideburns. Yarborough is the little big man, maybe 5-foot-7 but put together like a linebacker, the whole package topped by a red face and a yellow hair.

They are country boys, or were (as we shall see in the case of one), and their rise to prominence is proof to the good ol' boys and girls that anybody can make it, provide they work hard and keep out of trouble. "A man shouldn't get above his raisin's, y'know," Petty told writer Billy Libby who did a biography called, appropriately, "King Richard."

Of all men's games, Hemmingway said, those that best test his grace under pressure are mountain climbing, bullfighting and motor racing, for in those he risks the ultimate punishments for errors or foolishness. The rewards for success, then, are the sweeter. To that, the good ol' boys Petty, Pearson and Yarborough might say, "Huh?" They are not testing the human spirit. Why, for instance, does Yarborough drive boldly, doing his best work at full throttle while a Pety for Pearson might go easier?

"Cause I like it," Yarborough said, his joy tangible. "I love driving 200 miles per hour."

No romance, either, in Pearson's explanation for putting his gray hair on the line. "I'm just trying to keep that thing (the car) going," he said. "All I ever wanted was to be a race-car driver."

And why does Petty race? "Because, it's something I can do good," he said, lighting up northeast Florida with that wonderful smile. for add stockers 3.

Whatever moves these men, it moves them quickly. Petty has won 185 races, Pearsons 99 and Yarborough 50 on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Grand National circuit. Only two other active drivers are in double figures, Bobby ALlison having won 46 times, Buddy Baker 13. Of 30 Grand National last season, Petty, Pearson and Yarborough won 16.

More numbers: Yarborough, the national champion two years running, won $477,498 last season; Petty won $345,886, and Pearson, in an off year, took in $1,004,583 in a year. You'd have to haul a bunch of moonshine to reach seven figures. For their careers, Petty has won$2.9 million, Pearson $1.9 and Yarborough $1.9. That's $6.7 million and there ain't that much moonshine.

They are old as athletes go - Petty at 40 has been driving half his life, Pearson at 40 had been at it for 25 years and Yarborough, 38, is in his 21st season - but these three are far from done.

"If a man keeps himself in shape, no reason he can't do it until he's 50," Yarborough said. "And the three of us takes care of ourselves."

"Maybe I'm not better than I was five years ago," Pearson said. "But I'm better than I was 10 years ago. Fifty? Sure. If nothing happens, why not?"

Just to see what they'd say, a man asked Petty, Pearson and Yarborough what they thought of the other two. Without fail, each driver seemed stumped, as if he'd never thought about it before. Or, perhaps, they'd thought about it too often.

"Richard, what do you think about David and Cale?"

"They are the ones I have to beat."

"What about their styles, the way they drive?"

"What about 'em?"

"Can you describe them?"

"Not really," said Petty, who in his book described Pearson as perhaps the best driver ever, Yarborough as a hell-bent charger.

The man sought out Pearson.

"David, what makes you, Richard and Cale the dominant three out here?"

"We got the best equipment."

"And?"

"That's all. We've got the best crews, too."

The men moved on to Yarborough.

"Cale, what do the names Pearson and Petty means to you?"

"They're probably my two cheif rivals over the long haul."

"What do they do well?"

"They do their jobs well."

"Ever any problems?"

"Like fueds? Naw. We're friends off the race track. Of course, now, when the green flag drops, all that changes."

The little man set his chin firmly.

Does it ever change. Two Petty-Pearson incidents at Daytona International Speedway are unforgettable examples of competitive guile and courage. Hemmingway would have loved them both, those last-lap dramas in the 1974 Firecracker 400 and the 1976 Daytona 500.

Petty said, "I'll quit when it ain't fun nomore. Right now, I'm having the same fun as I always did."

To understand them fully, you need know about the aerodynamic principle of "drafting." It is unique to high-speed race tracks. Here the cars reach 190 mph on a 2 1/2-mile oval with turns banked like the insides of your cereal bowl. The cars became marbles whirling around the rim. As the car move their bulk through the air, a vacuum is created immediately behind them. Another car, moving into that vacuum, is literally pulled along by it. The driver actually can let off the accelerator and yet go faster because of the "drafting."

That means the car running in the vacuum has the advantage. When the driver chooses to, he simply steers out of the vacuum. stands on the accelerator again and races past the front-runner.

So the worst place to be, on the last lap at Daytona, is in front with a contender at your bumper. He has the upper hand.

In the '74 Firecracker, that's where Pearson was, in front, with Petty in his draft, waiting until Turn 3 of the last lap to pass him.

Pearson, the foxy one, tried a trick. He took him foot off the accelerator and forced Petty to pass early. Then Pearson hooked onto Petty to pass early. Then Pearson hooked onto Petty's bumper and, at the last moment, pulled around Petty to win the race.

"It was the slickest move I ever made," Pearson said later.

Petty said, "I almost ran into his rear end when he let off like that. He could have got us both killed."

"Richard's just mad because he got beat," Pearson said.

"I always trusted David, but I can't anymore," Petty said.

"I never took Richard for granted anytime and he shouldn'ttake me for granted," Pearson said.

Then came 1976, the last lap of the Daytona 500, and one of the most dramatic finishes to any sports event anywhere. This time Petty led on the last lap until Pearson passed him in Turn 3. Obviously, if Petty thought to win, he needed to try the impossible, which was repass Pearson on the high-banked turn.

He tried. But he was asking too much. At 190 mph, he moved inside Pearson. The laws of physics said it couldn't be done, the centrifugal force not allowing Petty to take a short cut. His car began to drift toward the wall, or, more horrifyingly, toward Pearson.

They collided, both went spinning into the wall, both careened down the track toward the finish line. For a bizarre moment, it seemed Petty would win his game's biggest prize spinning backward under the checkered flag. But he fianlly stopped, the engine dead.

And here came Pearson. The front end of his car was smashed flat, the bumper and fenders nearly dragging the ground. But Pearson had his engine running. Somehow, he's had the presence of mind - while spinning, while crashing, while within sight of his Daytona 500 victory ever - to push in the clutch and keep his motor running. At maybe, 10 mph, Pearson chugged across the finish line.

No harsh words this time. "Richard did what he had to," Pearson said. "I'd have done it, too. That's racing."

Why didn't Petty his engine running?

"Man, I had both feet in the brake," Petty who has the 500 five times.

Someone told Petty that Pearson had kept a foot on the clutch.

"He did?"

"Richard and David get along fairly well now," said a friend of both. "But neirther of them likes Cale."

Why not?

"Cause, Cale went off the USAC that time. They think he was going lifetime on them."

After winning 14 major events in NASCAR in 1967-68-69, Yarborough signed a lucrative contract to drive the Indianapolis-type cars on the United States Auto Club circuit. Neither Petty nor Pearson has ever driven outside NASCAR. They never went above their raisin's. In the two seasons with the Indy-type car, Yarborough accomplished nothing of note and returned to the stockers in 1973. He has won 36 races since.

And Yarborough has turned his racing into a fortune. A self-made conglomerate in Timmonsville, S.C., Yarborough owns a 1,000-acre farm, a chain of dry cleaners, farm warehouses and assorted rental properties. At one time or another, he has been involved in lumber, modular homes, liquor stores and turkey farming.

Like Pearson, Yarborough came up from nothing. He remembers vividly a night in 1962 when his wife Betty Jo searched the floor and under the car seats for money to get them across a toll bridge on the Savannah River. She came up with 37 cents, not enough.

"The guy let us through, though," Yarborough said, "and we went racing. We didn't win nothing, so he had to let us back across, too. I made up my mind right then that I wasn't ever going to be in that situation again."

Today, Yarborough lives in a sprawling mansion, a 7,000-square-foot home with seven bathrooms and a trophy room of awesome elegance.

"Pearson had a trophy room, too," said a friend. "It's a tin shed out back of his normal person's house. I asked him once if I could see the Daytona 500 trophy and he didn't even know where it was."

On a quarter-mile dirt track in Woodruff, S.C., David Pearson, then 18, and to be a father in six weeks, earned $5.22, for his first race ever. Thirteen years later, 1966, he won the first of his three national championships. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, in a U.S. Senate speech, said of Pearson. "Success did not go to him; he worked his way to success and grabbed it."

Yarborough is glib, a politician who campaigned for Jimmy Carter. Asked once how much money a small-time track would have to pay him to run there, he said nothing; he nodded down his side, where he held five fingers stretched out: $5,000. Pearson for six years, wore the same pair of loafers while racing.

"The reason David doesn't say much," the friend said, "is that he's worried about his lack of education. He'd be mortified, for instance, if somebody asked him, 'How would you compare your driving as art next to Michelangelo's?"

"Richard would make a joke out of not knowing it. He's say, 'Oh, you mean Joe Michelangelo what paints the track billboards.' And that would be that. But David isn't that smooth."

Smooth is the word for Richard Petty. If not born with a silver sppon in his mouth, it was at least a silver wrench. His father Lee was a great racer who built a team, operation before anyone else considered the idea. At 12, Richard Petty worked on cars. At 20, he drove professionally. No other driver anywhere has won as many races in one kind of car.

Six times the national champion, he has handled success flawlessly. Competitors like him, fans love him. He signs autographs - in an artistic flourish of curly-cues that he prefected in a handwriting course, taken for that express purpose - by the thousands. Two days ago, Petty was knocked unconscious in a race. When an announcement came, a half hour later, that Petty was up and walking around, tens of thousands of anxious spectators broke into cheers and applause.

"It ain't nothin'," said Lee Petty, leaving the track hospital where he'd just seen his famous son. "Just got a headache. Bumped his head. He'll be there Sunday for the race."

Richard Petty, the smooth one, an artist at the wheel, will be there with David Pearson, the silver fox waiting his time, and Cale Yarborough, the little man in a hurry. The game is the better for it.