David Pearson, a three-time champion in what is now NASCAR's Monster Energy Cup Series, died Monday at 83, the Wood Brothers Racing team confirmed to ESPN.
Inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in its second class in 2011, Pearson won 105 Cup races, second only to Richard Petty, Pearson's chief rival in the 1960s and 1970s. Between 1963 and 1977, the two finished first and second in 63 races, with Pearson winning 33 of them.
"I have always been asked who my toughest competitor in my career was. The answer has always been David Pearson," Petty said Monday night in a statement. "David and I raced together throughout our careers and battled each other for wins -- most of the time finishing first or second to each other.
"It wasn't a rivalry, but more mutual respect. David is a Hall of Fame driver who made me better. He pushed me just as much as I pushed him on the track. We both became better for it."
Petty and Pearson remained friends after their racing days ended.
"We have always been close to the Pearson family because they were in the racing business, just like us," Petty said. "We stayed close, and I enjoyed visits to see David when going through South Carolina. We will miss those trips."
In a statement Monday, NASCAR said Pearson's legendary rivalry with Petty "helped set the stage for NASCAR's transformation into a mainstream sport with national appeal."
"When he retired, he had three championships -- and millions of fans," NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said. "Petty called him the greatest driver he ever raced against. We were lucky to be able to call him one of our champions. The man they called the 'Silver Fox' was the gold standard for NASCAR excellence."
David Pearson was one of the all time greats. Anyone who raced him will tell you he was the best. The Silver Fox lived up to his persona on and off the track. What a badass. RIP pic.twitter.com/LGGJ7ZIje9— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) November 13, 2018
RIP David Pearson.— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) November 13, 2018
I'd have to say if their was one driver who inspired me the most on the race track it was you. Always gritty, witty and in position at the end when it counted.
Known as the "Silver Fox" for his penchant of lying in wait while others used up their cars by charging to the lead early in races, Pearson often seemingly came out of nowhere to take the lead in a race's waning laps.
His signature win came in the 1976 Daytona 500, when he passed Petty for the lead on the backstretch on the final lap, only for Petty to make contact trying to regain the lead coming out of Turn 4. Both cars hit the wall and spun into the infield just shy of the finish line.
Pearson was able to refire his Wood Brothers Ford and passed Petty's stalled Dodge for the win.
While Petty won 200 Cup races to Pearson's 105, Pearson's accomplishments are remarkable in that he won the championship the only three times he ran for it. During his years driving for the Wood Brothers, the team focused only on the bigger races, leaving him out of championship contention.
During his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Pearson reminisced and joked about his battles with Petty.
"He's probably the one that made me win as many as I did," Pearson said. "I run hard because he'd make me run hard.
"Sometimes, he would make a mistake and I'd pass him. Of course, I didn't never make no mistakes -- always accused him of having big engines when he passed me. But he's a good sport. Like I say, I've had more fun running with him than anybody I ever run with 'cause I know if I ever went to a racetrack and he was there, if I could beat him, I'd win the race."
Pearson's most successful track was in his home state. He won 10 times at South Carolina's Darlington Raceway.
"His fierce competitiveness and passion for the sport endeared him to the NASCAR faithful," Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp said. "His Hall of Fame career will go down as one of the most prolific in the history of the sport. ... He will be missed and will always be remembered."
Pearson's first championship came in 1966, when he won 15 of his 42 starts, followed by championships in 1968 (16 wins in 48 starts) and 1969 (11 wins in 51 starts).
ESPN's Bob Pockrass contributed to this report.