As far as two-for-one deals go in NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson got one of the best imaginable.
When teams, sponsors and drivers began brainstorming ideas for possible throwback paint schemes for Darlington Raceway’s Bojanles’ Southern 500 and the return of their wildly popular throwback campaign, there were a lot of possibilities to choose from. NASCAR’s rich history is filled with colorful and iconic paint schemes driven by drivers worthy of being honored. Likewise, many of the sponsors have nostalgic logos from their company’s early days that would look great on a race car.
In Johnson’s case, it was serendipitous.
The paint schemes on most of the cars in the starting field paid tribute to a single driver. This, however, wasn’t enough for Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet SS. Instead of celebrating only one driver, the paint scheme Hendrick Motorsports, Lowe’s and Johnson chose honored two.
These weren’t just any drivers – they were legends in our sport, champions and future NASCAR Hall of Famers. The paint scheme connected two legendary drivers at different points of their careers. David Pearson was on the back-end of his career having already won three championships and more than 100 races in NASCAR’s premier series, while Dale Earnhardt was just a rookie with only one win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on his resume.
Of course, we’re talking about the yellow and blue No. 2 car Earnhardt drove in 27 of the 31 races during the 1979 season. Pearson piloted the car in the other four races.
Heading into his rookie season, Earnhardt had nine starts in the NASCAR’s premier series spread out over four seasons without a win. In the seventh race of 1979, he hit pay dirt, winning the Southeastern 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. He started ninth and led a race-high 163 laps before taking the checkered flag by three seconds over Bobby Allison.
The win was Earnhardt’s first of 76 career wins.
Twelve races later, on July 30, in the Coca-Cola 500 at Pocono Raceway, the North Carolina native was involved in a serious accident in Turn 2. The wreck ended his day prematurely after just 98 laps. As a result of the incident, Earnhardt received two broken collarbones, a concussion and several bruises.
He started the race third and led 43 laps before the accident, ultimately finishing 29th.
The injuries Earnhardt sustained during the race kept him out of the next four events while he healed. Looking for a substitute driver, Rod Osterlund Racing turned to David Pearson to fill in the rookie’s absence.
Pearson first took the steering wheel of the No. 2 for the Talladega 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on August 5. He started the race from the second position and led 17 laps before finishing runner-up. Pearson and Darrell Waltrip, the race winner, were the only two drivers on the lead lap, the third-place driver finished two laps down. Although Pearson was on the lead lap with Waltrip, he finished 62 seconds behind him.
Unlike all of the other races that season, the No. 2 carried Lowe’s sponsorship in the Talladega 500. In the 30 other races, the car did not carry a primary sponsor on the hood. It is this paint scheme in particular that Hendrick Motorsports, Lowe’s and Johnson decided to honor during the Bojangles’ Southern 500, complete with the Lowe’s logo on the hood written in the same script from 1979.
Pearson’s second race as a substitute in the No. 2 came two weeks later at Michigan International Speedway. He started the Champion Spark Plug 400 on the pole after laying down a qualifying speed of 162.992 mph. Although he was on the pole, he never led a lap and finished fourth as the first car one lap down.
Bristol Motor Speedway and the Volunteer 500 on August 25 was Pearson’s third race in the car. He started third and finished seventh.
Pearson’s fourth and final race proved to be victorious. In a somewhat fitting twist, Pearson won the 1979 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway – the same track at which the blue and yellow paint scheme would be honored by Johnson and company (albeit the car in the 1979 edition didn’t have the Lowe’s sponsorship).
In the race, Pearson started fifth and led 74 of the 367 laps. His car that race was so strong that he led the field to the finish line by more than two laps. The official report states that he beat runner-up Bill Elliott by two laps and four seconds. It was his second-to-last win in a storied career that brought him 105 career victories, good for second all-time.
Six days later, Earnhardt was healed and ready to return to the No. 2 car. In his first race back – the Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway – Earnhardt started on the pole and led 19 laps on the way to a fourth-place finish.
The four races in which Pearson filled in for him were the only races Earnhardt missed that season. At season’s end, Earnhardt had one win and accumulated 11 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes, good enough for seventh in the final points standings. He also took home Rookie of the Year honors, beating out fellow rookies Harry Gant, Terry Labonte and Joe Millikan.
In addition to Pearson’s four starts at the helm of the No. 2, he started five races from the cockpit of Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 Purolator Mercury.
Johnson’s car in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 stood out from the rest, not only because of its vivid colors, but also because of its awesome past — a back story so great that it included two icons of the sport.
For more background information, photos and videos of the cars you saw on track during Darlington’s throwback weekend, and the cars that inspired them, please visit Lionel Racing’s Throwback Timeline.
For previous “The Story Behind the Scheme” articles, please see below.