Mr. Pearson was one of NASCAR’s first superstars along with Petty, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough as they raced throughout the country, propelling the sport beyond its origins in the South. Mr. Pearson was a three-time Cup champion, and his 105 career victories trail only Petty’s 200 on NASCAR’s all-time list. He was inducted into the second class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011.
Mr. Pearson’s career paralleled Petty’s, and the two combined to finish first and second to each other 63 times. Mr. Pearson won 33 of the battles.
“I have always been asked who my toughest competitor in my career was. The answer has always been David Pearson,” Petty said Monday. “David and I 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.”
Mr. Pearson beat Petty in the 1974 Firecracker 500 at Daytona International Speedway when Petty was glued to his bumper on the final lap. Pearson then let off the gas slightly as Petty dropped out of his wake, and Petty pulled up alongside Mr. Pearson and passed him. With the finish line in sight, Pearson then used a slingshot pass out of the high banked final turn to zip past Petty and snatch the victory.
Two years later in the Daytona 500, Mr. Pearson and Petty collided near the finish line, and both cars slid into the grass. Mr. Petty was unable to restart his engine, and Pearson got the victory when he limped his damaged car across the finish line.
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David Gene Pearson was born Dec. 22, 1934, in Spartanburg. He began racing on the short tracks of the Carolinas, working in an auto-body shop and as a roofer to support his driving. He graduated to NASCAR in 1960.
He won the NASCAR championship three times — 1966, 1968 and 1969 — driving a Dodge Charger in 1966 and a Ford Torino in the other seasons. Mr. Pearson won 11 of 18 races in 1973, driving a Ford.
Mr. Pearson last raced in the Cup series in 1986 but didn’t officially retire until 1989, when recurrent back problems forced the issue.
His wife, Helen Ray, died in 1991. Survivors include three sons.