Sixty-five-thousand fans filled Daytona Int’l Speedway on July 4, 1974, for the 14th annual Firecracker 400 NASCAR Cup Series race. By mid-afternoon, tempers flared as they had witnessed one of the most exciting finishes in NASCAR history.
The breathtaking last-lap battle between David Pearson and Richard Petty divided the crowd, some saying Pearson’s surprise strategy was brilliant and a typical “Silver Fox” move. Others called it reckless with no regard for Petty’s safety. Mere mention of the race stirs emotion decades later.
Pearson put his No. 21 Wood Brothers Mercury on the pole and led 44 laps, including the final 14. As he had done so many times during his career, he kept the leaders in his sights before working his way to the front at the end.
Along with Pearson, Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Isaac and Darrell Waltrip traded the lead 49 times. Petty was Pearson’s closest challenger, creating another incredible finish between two of NASCAR’s greatest rivals.
Pearson started the final lap with the No. 43 Petty Enterprises Dodge four car lengths behind. To the disbelief of the crowd, Pearson dropped low on the track just past the start-finish line, giving Petty the lead to the outside.
Trailing Petty down the backstretch, Pearson pushed the throttle and used the draft to catch Petty in the fourth turn. He swerved under Petty through the tri-oval and won the drag race to the finish to record the 79th of his 105 Cup Series victories.
Pearson’s daring move had not been attempted by any driver in the past.
Pearson, 82, no longer attends NASCAR events due to health issues. According to newspaper accounts taken from the “40 Years of Stock Car Racing” series, he said, “I let Petty go by because I knew he could draft past me as long as he was in second place. I tried to pull away for about five laps but I couldn’t. So I just acted like my car had quit. I intended for him to think my engine had blown. I didn’t think it was a risky move. I pulled to the inside of the track on the straightaway and I don’t think I endangered him.”
Four decades later, Petty recalls the last lap and Pearson’s move that caught him completely off guard as if it had taken place yesterday.
“We were running along and got the white flag,” Petty said. “I was second trying to figure out how I could get David and he was trying to figure out where I was going. Just past the start-finish line, he pulled over and let off on the thing. I must have gotten 200 yards ahead of him. I thought maybe he had blown up, but he was so fast. He knew he could pass me, but he didn’t know If I could pass him. He made the right move and I couldn’t do anything about it.
“I was really ticked off at him at the time because I was right on his back bumper and he suddenly let off and didn’t give me any warning, no hand signal or anything,” Petty added. “I was lucky I didn’t run into him. David knew where he was at all times. He knew what he was capable of and what his car was capable of.”
When Pearson abruptly backed off to let Petty pass, the Wood Brothers team began to feel waves of disappointment and began packing tools, stacking tires and disconnecting air hoses. They were sure the engine had blown. Eddie Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing, recalls how quickly the scenario changed, thanks in part to a crew member with an impromptu view of the backstretch.