Pearson: Just drive the car

Is this really -- honestly now -- an age of high technology?

Brilliant engineering? Precision, scientific driving? Tiny changes that make huge differences in setups?

David Pearson wonders.

"Half the time I don't believe they know what they're talking about," he says of today's drivers and crew chiefs. "Now, whoever heard of putting a quarter-pound of air in a tire and you can tell the difference?"

He is 74. In his opinion, rather than pitting for an extra hiss of air in a tire, "all they've got to do is move up or down the track half a car width, three or four feet, and it'll be the same thing."

He rolls his eyes at all the talk of aero push, and of the high center of gravity that makes "the new car" push even more, and of overcorrecting the setup to make it maddeningly loose.

"I can't believe it's as bad as some of 'em say," he says. "Moving up a lane or down a lane, you can make a car push, or get loose, whatever.

"A lot of people tell me, 'The car's pushing real bad.' And I say, 'Well, can you spin it out?' They say, 'Well, yeah, I can spin it out.'

"I say, 'Well, it ain't pushing too much, then.'"

Just who is David Pearson to talk?

He was the best NASCAR driver there ever has been, and probably ever will be, and I am by no means alone in that opinion.

What a pity that he'll have to sit out Saturday night's late-model race for legendary drivers at Bristol, Tenn., with an ailing back. What a pity you, the current generation of NASCAR enthusiasts -- and we, the generation that remembers -- won't get to see that sublime, oh-so-easy-looking style that could always put the car precisely where it was supposed to be, and never anywhere else.

In 1999, Sports Illustrated put together a voting panel of 40 NASCAR experts with high seniority in the sport -- from Dale Earnhardt to Bill France Jr. to Junior Johnson, and all the top veterans in between ... from Ned Jarrett, who had seen it all through his windshield and in his mirrors, and seen it all from the TV booth, to MRN radio anchor Barney Hall, who has probably seen more laps of racing, from a bird's-eye view with high focus on the goings-on, than anyone else ...

They were asked to vote on NASCAR's Driver of the Century -- and therefore, since NASCAR still wasn't and still isn't a century old, NASCAR's best driver of all time.

When the points were tallied, the Driver of the Century -- the best ever -- was David Pearson.

Petty took no offense whatsoever -- indeed, whenever I've asked him about NASCAR's best driver, he has answered with this soliloquy.

"Pearson. Pearson could beat you on a short track, he could beat you on a superspeedway, he could beat you on a road course, he could beat you on a dirt track.

"It didn't hurt as bad to lose to Pearson as it did to some of the others, because I knew how good he was."

Pearson's 105 Cup wins are second only to Petty's 200, and Pearson drove only 574 races, less than half Petty's total. By winning percentage, Pearson would have won 216 races, easily the record, if he had been in the same number of races as Petty (1,184). And some years he wasn't in as good equipment as Petty.

Ah! you say. But Earnhardt and Petty won seven championships each. Pearson won only three.

Listen: Pearson ran the full schedule only three times in his career -- 1966, '68 and '69 -- and all three times, he won the championship.

In 1973, with the Wood Brothers, Pearson entered only 18 races. He won 11. No driver, before or since, has come close to that season's winning average (.611).

Sixty-three times, Pearson and Petty came in 1-2, one way or the other. Of those, Pearson won 33 to Petty's 30.

"I always told him that was because he was in better cars," Petty cracked, knowing that most of the time the opposite was true.

So why has Pearson's career not resounded more, down through NASCAR history?

Because, as he has often put it with such characteristic simplicity, "I was bashful." Petty was a media darling -- flashy, articulate in his homespun way.

Pearson, often as not, would hide from us.

He was and is a shy man, always calm, viewing everything, especially racing, with simple common sense.

He drove what he was given to drive, without complaining. It wasn't a matter of forcing the best out of a car, but letting the car do the best it could.

Half the time I don't believe they know what they're talking about. Now, whoever heard of putting a quarter-pound of air in a tire and you can tell the difference?

-- David Pearson

Old Darlington Raceway, considered Pearson's home track because he's always lived in Spartanburg, S.C., was and is the most difficult, challenging NASCAR track there is -- this by consensus of drivers old and young. Pearson won more races there than anyone else to this day, 10.

After one of those, as we wondered aloud at his mastery of the warped, truly egg-shaped old track with its humps and bumps and jutting-out walls and uneven banking, he stopped our chatter cold.

"Now why do y'all keep talkin' about this racetrack? There ain't nothin' wrong with this racetrack," he said.

He accepted and mastered what he was given to work with. Always.

His elegant simplicity holds, even in his sparse remarks when he is asked about current drivers.

Kyle Busch? "He's good. No doubt about it."

Pearson has always told me that of all current drivers, Jeff Gordon reminds him most of himself. Still true?

"Gordon's smart."

And, "Carl Edwards is smart. But Kyle just loves to run wide open all the time. If he can get a car to stay under him, he's gonna run good -- if he don't wreck."

Who of the current crop would Pearson like to race against?

"All of 'em."

Which brings us back to modern-day drivers' biggest chronic complaint, the new car, or the Car of Tomorrow.

How would Pearson have adapted?

"I don't know," he says, bashfully. "You'll have to ask Leonard."

Leonard Wood was his crew chief during the glory years, and the Wood Brothers are still racing, with veteran Bill Elliott trying to sort out the so-called new car.

Wood's answer is both overly simplistic and overly complex.

Simplistically, "He runs a car like it's supposed to run," Wood says (and note how he still speaks of Pearson in the present tense). "He takes the line you're supposed to run."

That is, he lets the car do its best, rather than forcing it to do its best.

"So I'm sure he would have done really well" with the new car, Wood says.

The new car gives current drivers fits because it either pushes too much or is too loose. Looseness is the overwhelming issue for those trying to win races in it.

Now the complex part.

"He brakes with his right foot," Wood says, still in present tense. The great majority of NASCAR drivers, from Pearson's time till now, have been left-foot brakers, often dragging the brake pedal with the left foot, even while on the accelerator with the right.

"So he's not on the brakes if it's not necessary," Wood continues. "You don't need to use brakes if you don't have to. A person can use a lot of brakes and upset the car."

So in the new car, "maybe it would be loose for some people, but it wouldn't be loose for him," Wood says of Pearson.

Wood is certain of only one thing about David Pearson and modern-day NASCAR racing: "I wish he was 30 years younger."

So do I. And so should you.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.