Not Earnhardt, not Petty ... Pearson is NASCAR’s greatest driver of all time
The choices are pretty clear. Many will say there’s no denying the title to Richard Petty, who amassed an amazing 200 victories in his career … a mark that will never be passed. In addition, he also took seven Cup titles. These people have a good argument -- you don’t achieve such massive numbers without being one of the greatest.
Others will name Dale Earnhardt Sr. as their choice for the greatest. Picking up where Petty left off, he dominated good chunks of the 80s and 90s, but raced in a much smaller number of races each year, so he never had the chance to rival Petty in terms of wins. As far as titles, he equaled Petty’s seven, despite winning more than 100 fewer races. Earnhardt backers would argue that if the two had raced in the same era, Dale could have come out with better career numbers.
But the person I’m going to crown the all-time best is David Pearson, winner of three Cup titles and 105 races in his career. He won three titles in four seasons, during the only part of his career he chose to run enough races to contend for the title. The “Silver Fox” from Spartanburg, South Carolina, most famous for driving the #21 for the Wood Brothers, is glossed over by many because his name isn’t as famous as the other contenders, but the numbers show that he was the best.
Here is the raw data:
Richard Petty won 200 of 1184 races over 35 years. He had 555 top 5s, 712 top 10s, 123 poles, led 52,194 miles. Winning percentage was 16.8 percent, and average finish was 11.3.
David Pearson won 105 of 572 races over 26 years. He had 301 top 5s, 366 top 10s, 113 poles, led 25,419 miles. Winning percent was 18.3 percent, and average finish was 11.0.
Dale Earnhardt won 76 of 676 races over 27 years. He had 281 top 5s, 428 top 10s, 22 poles, led 25,707 miles. Winning percentage was 11.2 percent, and average finish was 11.1.
Petty ran basically full-time for his entire career, while Pearson only choose to run full-time for a few seasons. Throughout his whole career, Petty's biggest nemesis was David Pearson. Their most famous battle came at the end of the 1976 Daytona 500, when they crashed on the final lap and Pearson took the win in a crumpled car while Petty’s engine wouldn’t restart. But they had many classic battles over the years. From 1963 to 1977, Petty and Pearson finished 1-2 63 times. Pearson was the victor 33 times, Petty 30 times. Head-to-head, Pearson wins this battle.
Petty has even said in recent interviews that Pearson was his greatest rival and possibly a better driver. That’s probably the best endorsement you could receive.
If Pearson, who was somewhat reclusive, had embraced the spotlight and chosen to run full-time in the era Petty dominated, I have little doubt the numbers would be much different now. Petty would have been much closer to 100 wins, and Pearson much closer to 200. He would be hailed universally as the undisputed “King” of NASCAR. By choosing to race part-time for most of his career, he ceded that title to Petty in the minds of most fans. But I bet he wonders every once in a while what could have been.
As far as Earnhardt, I have a ton of respect for his talent. Dale Sr. deserves to be in the discussion, and was the dominant driver from the mid-80s to the mid-90s. Even in the later years, he showed fans him awesome talent, such as when he passed almost 20 cars at Talladega in just a few laps to get the final win of his career in 2000.
But looking at his numbers through his career, they don’t hold up to Pearson or Petty. If the three could have battled each other while at their peaks, it’s hard to say who would come out on top. By no means would I count Dale out of that battle.
But as a whole, it’s hard to argue that the guy with the best winning percentage and best average finish isn’t the best driver. Sure he didn’t win as many titles as Petty or Earnhardt, but if he had committed to driving full-time, I bet he could have won more than seven.
As far as pure driving talent goes, there’s no beating David Pearson, and he’s #1 in my book.