Saturday, April 16, 2016

April 16, 1972 - Rebel 400

Though R.J. Reynolds joined forces with NASCAR to re-brand the Grand National Division as the Winston Cup Series in 1971, most point to 1972 as the start of the modern era. A number of tracks and races were cut from the schedule, and the drivers raced a 30'ish race schedule each year for the title beginning in 1972.

Another big change facing the sport was the exit of funding from Detroit's Big Three manufacturers. Factory money was no more - at least overtly. Teams needed new revenue sources to help cover the costs of racing. Petty Enterprises did the unthinkable by signing with STP. The agreement wasn't the surprise. The adding of STP's Day-Glo Red to Petty Blue is what dropped the jaws of many. But hey, it paid the bills, a lot of them.

Petty won in 1971 ... a lot. Many fans with even a bare grasp of historical NASCAR intel can quote the fact the King won 27 races in 1967. What few remember, however, is he also won another 21 races in 1971. Those winning ways carried over into 1972. Petty won the season-opener on Riverside's road course in his first race with STP. Bad fortune hit the team at Daytona, and a fouled engine doomed the 43 to a 26th place DNF.

The bad Daytona finish didn't deter the Level Cross bunch. Petty followed up Daytona with a win at Richmond followed by a 4th at Ontario, 2nd at Rockingham, 6th at Atlanta, and 3rd at Bristol.

David Pearson, the long-time rival and peer of the King, didn't start 1972 with quite the same success. With the loss of Ford's factory funding and increased acrimony between John Holman and Ralph Moody, Pearson parted ways with the #17 ride in which he'd had so much success in the late 1960s. He picked up a few rides with Ray Nichels in the back half of 1971, and he made two so-so starts with Bud Moore's team at Riverside and Atlanta in early 1972.

The famed Wood Brothers team started 1972 a bit like the Pettys. With legendary driver A.J. Foyt at the wheel, the #21 Ford team won the pole at Riverside, captured the Daytona 500, won the pole and the race at Ontario, and finished 2nd at Atlanta. Foyt, however, needed to begin focusing his efforts on his primary job as an Indy car driver. Preparations for the Indianapolis 500 were well underway, and Foyt needed to be all-in with the effort to capture his fourth 500.

In a decision benefiting all (except Petty fans), the Wood Brothers opted to hire free-agent Pearson as their full-time driver for their part-time schedule effective with the Rebel 400 at Darlington.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
Despite racing on a truly limited basis for almost a year, Pearson didn't take long to put a smile on the faces of Glen and Leonard. Pearson plopped the Purolator Mercury on the pole. Bobby Allison, who like Pearson knew how to glide a car around Darlington, qualified alongside the Silver Fox on the front row. The two Mopars of Petty in his STP Plymouth and Bobby Isaac in his #71 K&K Insurance Dodge made up the second row.

The first third of the race was quite competitive. The lead was swapped every few laps between Allison, Pearson, Petty, Isaac, Petty's STP teammate Buddy Baker, and Jim Vandiver.

After a 27-lap stint out front, Baker  - the defending winner of the race - settled back into third. He then suddenly grenaded an engine in his Petty Dodge and found himself sliding down the front stretch and into the wall.

Source: Florence Morning News
Though Baker's Dodge was done, his teammate continued. Petty stayed in the hunt all day, but his Plymouth was no match for Pearson's Mercury.

With the exception of a 14-lap segment led by Petty and a single-lap out front by Allison, the final two-thirds of the race was dominated by #21. He built a full-lap lead on Petty and continued to lap the rest of the field repeatedly.

When Baker wrecked with 40+ laps to go, Petty hit pit road to top off his fuel. The team hoped Pearson would also have to stop and give the 43 an opportunity to get his lap back and then contend for the win.

Vandiver spun with seven laps to go, however, and Pearson cruised comfortably the remaining laps with his remaining gas to take the checkers. He won by a lap over Petty and eight laps over third place finisher, Joe Frasson (a career best finish).

Pearson was his normally, confident self heading into the race. When asked if he could race as well for the Woods as Foyt, Pearson replied "I think I can drive as well as A.J. You know, he isn't the only driver who has won in that car." Truth.

The win for David Pearson with the Wood Brothers team in their first race together was pretty remarkable. On the other hand, perhaps it wasn't such a surprise considering the strength of the Woods team plus Pearson's comfort with Darlington. Pearson's first win in over two years was also the 44th of 63 times Petty-Pearson finished 1-2.


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