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'76 Daytona 500 had a thrilling end

Most NASCAR fans, when asked to name the greatest driver in the sport's history, likely would choose either Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt, who each won seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships in their career.

Petty himself always leaned toward David Pearson, when assigning best-ever status. Pearson, he said, was the best "pure" driver. Petty considered himself a better "racer."

Driving, racing, bumping-and-banging, Petty and Pearson --- it all came together on Feb. 15, 1976 in the Daytona 500, with one of the most thrilling finishes in the event's history.

It also resulted in one of the weirder record book entries:

Margin of Victory: 50 yards.

But that was indeed about the best way to describe the finish to what fans saw that day, when a last-lap, Turn 4 clinch between the two heavyweights sent both of their cars slamming into the outside wall as they approached the start-finish line.

The cars had touched as Petty was trying to complete an inside pass of Pearson.

"I'm not sure what happened," Pearson said.

"We didn't have spotters back then so I didn't know I wasn't clear," Petty said.

The rest is NASCAR lore.

Petty's No. 43 STP Dodge was headed toward the stripe but stalled out and rolled off the banking into the infield grass, coming to a frustrating halt.

Pearson's No. 21 Purolator Mercury spun after slamming the wall, rumbling toward pit road, hitting another car on the way.

Pearson kept his car running --- the story goes that he had the presence of mind to keep the clutch engaged throughout the incident, keeping the engine fired --- and after getting straightened out, motored through the infield grass, past Petty, and cross the finish line at a snail's pace to win the Dayton 500 for the very first time. Petty sputtered across not long afterward to finish second.

Pearson never won the 500 again.

Web posted on Thursday, February 18, 2010

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