By Ben White
When it comes to Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, there are two numbers that stand out best. They are the No. 3 and the No. 21 with eight wins each.
The honor comes from two of the greatest masters of all time of the 1.366-mile track, that being three-time NASCAR Cup champion David Pearson and seven-time Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt. Pearson won there 10 times during his career with six coming in the Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 Mercury in 1972, ’73, ’74, twice in ’76, and ’77. Pearson also won there twice in the No. 17 Holman-Moody Racing and Fords and once each in the No. 1 and No. 2 Chevrolets of team owners Hoss Ellington and Rod Osterlund.
The other two victories making up the total of eight for the No. 21 came with driver Cale Yarborough in 1968 and Neil Bonnett in 1981. Pearson was dubbed the “Silver Fox” for his graying hair and his sly driving style that kept everyone guessing, even his crew.
“Back in the days when we had David driving for us, we would radio to him and ask him how the car was and he would say, ‘It’s good,’ but just wouldn’t tell us anything,” said Eddie Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing. “We would try to get him to tell us if it was loose or tight but he just wouldn’t say a whole lot. He knew what he had. He would kind of lay back and save the car until the final 50 laps or so and then be there at the front at the end. He really kept us guessing back then.
“Pearson loved racing at Darlington. There was just something about that track he had figured out that a lot of other drivers didn’t. He could get around that place better than anybody. Usually at the end of the day, he was the one in the lead and the one going to victory lane. I can remember maybe only one of two times when he got caught up in a wreck there. We had some great years when David drove for us. We were great friends after he stopped driving for us. We really miss him.”
Earnhardt logged nine total victories at Darlington Raceway with his first coming with the No. 15 Bud Moore Engineering Ford in April of 1982. After joining Richard Childress Racing for a second time in 1984, Earnhardt collected a second win at the famed egg-shaped oval in 1986, followed by two more in 1987, another in 1990, two more in 1990 and single wins in 1993 and 1994. Eight of those wins were while driving the No. 3.
The day Earnhardt won his last race at Darlington in 1994, he talked about his admiration and respect for Pearson.
“David gave a lot of crap when I was a rookie in 1979,” Earnhardt said in post-race interviews. “His advice to me was usually, ‘Get out of my way.’
“But he would talk about the cars and how to drive them. He even drove my car for me when I was injured (in 1979) and won here (in the Mountain Dew Southern 500). He taught me a lot and treated me as a friend over the years. Anytime you can come close to accomplishing the kind of things a guy you respect, think a lot of and watch closely as you grew up has to mean a lot.”
Sadly, Earnhardt died in a crash at Daytona on Feb. 18, 2001. Pearson passed away No. 12, 2018 at the age of 83.