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David Pearson's #21 NASCAR Mercury

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There’s a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to this old Mercury stock car. If it could talk, it might tell tales of the legendary Wood Brothers Racing team, who had already been running stock cars for 25 years when this car hit the track. It might tell the story of David Pearson, whose name stands along with Petty and Earnhardt as one of the sport’s all-time greats. But with this year’s Daytona 500 approaching, there’s one story that stands out, and it happened 45 years ago this week.

At the 1976 Daytona 500, it all came down to the final lap. David Pearson was driving this very car for the Wood Brothers, and like he had done so many times before in his career, he found himself tussling with Richard Petty for the lead. Late in the race, Pearson and Petty had put a two-lap lead on the rest of the field. Going into the final lap, Pearson was right on Petty’s bumper. He passed on the back straight, but Petty didn’t take it lying down. He fought back and made a pass in turn three. But the two cars collided and went spinning into the wall and finally both came to rest on the infield grass. For a few seconds, it looked like the leaders had just taken themselves out and third-place finisher Benny Parsons would take the checkered flag. But that was not to be.

Tenacious racers like Petty and Pearson don’t give up easily. Never mind the fact that they had just crashed at 150 mph, they both started frantically trying to restart their cars. Pearson was the quickest, and he drove this crumpled Mercury across the finish line to win his only Daytona 500. Petty’s car wouldn’t start, but his crew pushed him across the line to take second place.

It would go down as one of the most memorable and exciting moments in NASCAR history. But the car that Pearson limped across the line very nearly disappeared forever. After being repaired and raced again, it faded into obscurity. Some years later, it was rescued from a junkyard, authenticated by the Wood Brothers, and fully restored as you see it here.

The Museum of American Speed is proud to display this important piece of racing history. It stands as tribute to the good old days of stock car racing and a hard-charging driver who refused to give up.

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