First off, I need to give credit to the inspiration for this piece. That honor goes to @CarnationBoi on Twitter for sending out this tweet.
Now whether said jokingly or not, Petty is rightfully considered the “King” of stock car racing. However, I am here to present that there is an argument that Pearson was a better driver than Richard Petty. Before you talk about how ridiculous that is, just hear me out.
What the Stats Say
From a 30,000 foot view, it seems like the case for Petty is pretty open and shut. Petty had a career 200 wins with seven championships while Pearson had only 105 wins with three championships. However, if we go deeper, the gap narrows considerably.
David Pearson made 574 career starts while Petty made 1,184 career starts. If figured out purely from those numbers, Pearson’s career winning percentage is 18.2%, while Petty’s is only 16.9%. Those are both absolutely absurd when compared to some of these Hall of Famers: Jimmie Johnson (12.1%), Bobby Allison (11.6%), Jeff Gordon (11.6%), Dale Earnhardt (11.2%), and Darrell Waltrip (10.4%).
Pearson wins that battle, but is it really fair to count the end of Petty’s career where he was not winning? Pearson himself even ran parts of seven seasons after his last career win. So let’s adjust the stats from there.
When adjusted for this, Pearson’s winning percentage is 19.9%, while Petty’s is 20.8%. So when both were winning races, Petty does have Pearson beat in race win percentage, albeit by a small amount. This shows that Pearson is closer to Petty than some may have originally thought.
But that does not tell the full story. This argument goes deeper when looking at championships and the concept of running part-time vs full-time.
Part-Time vs Full Time
Racing was the Petty family business during all of Petty’s racing career. The Petty family was really the first family who made racing their primary source of income. As a result, Richard raced full-time or close to full-time in 32 out of 33 seasons from 1960 until his final season in 1992.
This is a big reason why Petty won his seven championships. He was one of the best stock car drivers at the time, and, in an era where running close to full-time in the series was not as common, he ran close to full-time.
Pearson, on the other hand, never entered all races in a given season. There were only four years out of his career where he ran enough races to be considered a close to full-time competitor. Keep in mind that in this era, the Cup Series was running around 50-60 races per year, so running every race was not feasible even for someone like Petty.
How did Pearson do in those four seasons (1964, 1966, 1968, and 1969)? Well, the numbers speak for themselves. Pearson amassed 50 wins, three championships, and a winning percentage of 24.8%. Pearson won a quarter of the races he entered during this time.
Here are Petty’s stats between these years from 1964-1969. Keep in mind that Petty ran full-time one more year than Pearson in 1967. Petty’s stats are as follows: 74 wins, two championships, and a winning percentage of 28.9%.
One other note is that the one full-time season Pearson did not compete in while Petty did was 1967 when Petty and his Chrysler HEMI engine won 27 races. Pearson ran a Dodge to start the year in 1967 before switching to Ford.
If Pearson ran full-time for Chrysler Corp. in 1967 with a HEMI engine on his back, Petty certainly does not have 27 wins that season. Not only that, but Pearson still won more season championships than Petty during this time. When these two guys were at the top of their game, Pearson was at the very least as good if not better than Petty.
After 1969, Pearson never entered more than 22 races in a season, while Petty continued to run full-time winning five more season championships. When Pearson was running, however, he was still incredible.
Despite not running full-time, Pearson won 11 out of 18 races entered in 1973 and 10 out of 22 races entered in 1976. He even had two top-10 points finishes in 1974 (3rd) and 1976 (9th) despite not running the full schedule. Just imagine, theoretically, if Pearson runs full-time and wins the championship in 1967, 1973, 1974, and 1976.
This means Petty has two less championships, and Pearson has four more, giving Pearson seven championships and Petty five. Even if we give Petty the 1967 championship, Pearson and Petty are still tied at six championships. Pearson also would have undoubtedly eaten into Petty’s win total as well.
If Pearson ran full-time throughout his career, he certainly has more championships, Petty does not have 200 wins, and Petty probably does not have seven championships. Now let’s look at the biggest margin in Pearson’s favor, head-to-head statistics and the opinion of King Richard.
Head to Head and the Admission from the King
The most astounding statistic when looking at this is the amount of 1-2 finishes that the two had. Pearson and Petty finished 1-2 63 times during their illustrious careers. The winner in that head-to-head is Pearson with 33 wins to Petty’s 30.
The most iconic of these 1-2 finishes was the 1976 Daytona 500. Here, Pearson and Petty finished 1-2 despite the two spinning off of turn four and wrecking their cars. The 1974 Firecracker 400 is in the conversation too after Pearson backed off to allow Petty past only to take the lead back and give Pearson the win.
Even looking at the four seasons that the two were running full-time, Pearson beat Petty in the points in three out of those four seasons. When it came to wins, Pearson had 50 wins while Petty had only 47 wins. When the two were competing against each other, Pearson came out on top more often than Petty.
Now what about the opinion of the one who was a part of this iconic rivalry? Richard Petty had this to say to Stock Car Racing Magazine in 1993 according to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
“Writers were asking me last year who was the best driver I ever raced against. I told them David Pearson. David and I ran more firsts and seconds than anybody else, and we raced together on dirt tracks, superspeedways, road courses, big tracks and little tracks. It didn’t make any difference, you had to beat him every week.”
Petty also at one point called Pearson, “The best racer that ever was.” Who can argue with Richard Petty? There was never more respect in a rivalry in all of sports.
As for who is better, these facts show that that can be highly debated. However, the main thing to take away is the fact that these two respected each other highly. A level of respect that some say is missing from NASCAR today.