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On This Date in Sports February 15, 1976: Drama at Daytona

In what may be the most thrilling finish in NASCAR history, Richard Petty and David Pearson duel down on the final lap of the Daytona 500. The two racers were two laps ahead of the rest of the field and were side by side for much of the last two laps. Coming down the stretch, the cars crash and spin out on the infield 50 yards from the finish. As Petty stalled, Pearson managed to get the checkered flag for his only career win at Daytona. 

Born on July 2, 1937, in rural North Carolina, Richard Petty, the son of Lee Petty, was the unquestioned King of Stockcar Racing. Petty set the record for most season titles with seven as he won a record 200 races in his NASCAR career. This includes seven wins in the Daytona 500. In the 1976 Great American Race, Richard Petty won three of the last five Dayton 500s.

 The Silver Fox David Pearson was born on December 22, 1934, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Racing was in Pearson’s blood as he climbed trees to watch races in Spartanburg as a young boy. One of the top drivers of the 1960s, Pearson won three season championships but had never won the Daytona 500 as he entered the 1976 season-opening race. 

Ramo Scott started the race in the Pole Position but barely made it through half of the race before engine troubles ended his day. A.J. Foyt also suffered engine troubles after leading 68 laps early in the race. The Dayton 500 took a nearly tragic turn on the 112th lap as Johnny Ray and Skip Manning crashed violently. Ray had no vital signs upon arriving at Halifax Medical Center, but doctors making a last-ditch effort were able to revive the 38-year-old NASCAR rookie. Johnny Ray had a long career racing trucks but hoped to be the NASCAR Rookie of the Year as he committed to the series full-time in 1976. The accident at Daytona ended Ray’s racing career. He would become a racecar owner and continue to be heavily involved in NASCAR’s truck series. 

The 1976 Daytona 500 had its share of cautions as two drivers emerged in a one-on-one duel when ABC began airing the last hour of the race as part of “Wide World of Sports.” David Pearson had the lead on 37 laps, and Richard Petty had it for 40 laps. The two had pulled away and were two laps ahead of the remainder of the field. As they entered the final lap, it was clear that this would be a finish for the ages. Pearson took the lead from Petty on the backstretch. As they hit turn 3, Richard Petty attempted to get back in front. Side-by-side, Petty and Pearson drove as they tried to avoid the other cars in the race. Down the final stretch, two cars crashed and spun into the infield, mere yards away from the finish line. Richard Petty was just 50 yards away from victory but could not get the engine on his Dodge to restart. David Pearson got his car back up and running and crossed the finish line at 15 miles per hour to win the race. Eventually, Petty got a push from his crew and finished second, as fans watching were dazzled by the dramatic last moments.