The Earnhardt Connection - News

Earnhardt and Pearson: The men who tamed Darlington
Jim McLaurin
Darlington, South Carolina (March 21, 1998)

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David Pearson (left) and Cotton Owens in front of a 1961 Pontiac at Darlington.

Dale Earnhardt figures David Pearson owes him one race win at Darlington. Pearson figures, hey, I was just breaking the car in for you.

``We talk about it,'' said Pearson, the legendary driver from Spartanburg, S.C., who, with 10 wins at Darlington, is one race ahead of Earnhardt. ``I always tell him I won a race in his car before he did.'' Pearson and Earnhardt share many things. Both are from modest backgrounds. Neither finished high school, getting the bulk of their education in the seat of a race car. Both are spectacular successes in their own right, and both can drive the wheels off a race car.

But of all the things they have in common, one sets them apart from the rest of the pack: They are the drivers who tamed Darlington Raceway. The oldest big track on NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit, Darlington has a mystique and history unique in stock car racing. Because it was built in 1950, largely without plans, it is like no other racetrack in the world. With its egg-shaped oval, it's the course most drivers consider the ultimate challenge and a must for a great driver's resume.

Pearson and Earnhardt, in part because of their successes at Darlington, can check off ``great'' by their names.

Pearson, a three-time Grand National (now Winston Cup) champion, drove Darlington unlike anyone else. Four hundred miles into a 500-mile race, Pearson would just about be counted out of the game. Then he'd put the pedal to the metal and, suddenly, the win that the leader was dreaming of would fade into a vision of Pearson's rear bumper pulling away. From his first win in the Rebel 500 in 1968 until his final victory at Darlington in the 1980 CRC Rebel 500, no one not even Cale Yarborough, who won five Southern 500s could touch Pearson's excellence at the track drivers consider the toughest on the circuit.

In 13 years, Pearson has won 10 races at Darlington three Rebel 400s, four Rebel 500s and three Southern 500s, including a sweep of the spring and fall events in 1976.

But back in 1979, during the Southern 500, Pearson found himself without a ride. He was asked by a young upstart from Kannapolis, N.C., to take over his car for the weekend.

Earnhardt, who then was in the running for the Rookie of the Year title, had separated his shoulder in a race at Pocono, Pa., in July. Pearson responded by taking Earnhardt's Chevrolet into victory lane two laps ahead of the field.

Ironically, it was Pearson's last Darlington win. Where he left off, Earnhardt picked up. Earnhardt would go on to become Rookie of the Year in 1979 and win the first of seven championships in 1980.

It took him until 1982 to figure out the old track, but once he did, he'd go on a tear that nearly matched Pearson's.

Earnhardt beat Yarborough in the 1982 Rebel race, then scored again at Darlington in the renamed Tran South 500 in 1986. He swept both races in 1987, won the 1989 fall classic, then swept again in 1990. Earnhardt won the Tran South event in 1993 and '94.

But Earnhardt has gone winless at Darlington for three years, and during that time a dark horse has emerged from the field. Two-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon has won four of the seven races since Earnhardt's victory in 1994, including a sweep in 1996. Last fall, he became the second man in history to win the Winston Million at Darlington.

``He has a real good chance,'' Pearson said. ``He's young, he runs good, and he's definitely got top equipment.''

But Gordon has a ways to go. Earnhardt is nipping at his heels.

``I'm out to tie it (Pearson's record) and break it if I can,'' Earnhardt said. ``That's our focus; to win every race we can. Darlington can be an intimidating place to come to, but it's been one of my favorite racetracks over the years. Anytime you win or run good at a place, it becomes one of your favorite race tracks.''

In the early part of his career, Earnhardt was noted as a tough guy who'd as soon knock you out of the way as finesse his way by. It took some learning to shake that, particularly at Darlington, but he had a good teacher.

``I started out working with a guy named Jake Elder that had crew-chiefed David's cars when he was at Holman-Moody,'' Earnhardt said. ``That sort of became a relationship between David and I, him talking about Jake and Jake telling me a lot of things about the way David drove this race track.

``I was hurt in '79 and David drove the race car and when we came back I drove the car basically like David had run it here. Even the seats in the car, the way he sat; I adapted to that. Anytime you can learn from somebody that good, you learn from them. I learned how to drive this race track better from David Pearson than anyone.''

It'll come, one day. Pearson said as much. But that's what records are for. ``Records are made to be broken,'' Pearson said. ``It's gonna take a couple more races for him to do it because he's one behind and this next race would just tie him.

``But if he does it, I don't know that I hadn't rather he do it than anybody.''