A long-time colleague recently asked which race I consider the most important in the growth and acceptance of NASCAR racing. Hmmm. Good question with lots of possible answers.

But it took only a few seconds to trim the candidates down to a workable few.

Obviously, the first Cup Series race on a ¾-mile dirt track near Charlotte in June of 1949 is among them. (Ironically, that race was 73 years ago this weekend). But there wasn’t much public attention, just as there wasn’t much media coverage outside the Carolinas. While being the first race was worth something, it wasn’t worth much.

About 15 months later, on Labor Day of 1950, they ran the first Southern 500 down at Darlington, S.C. It was historic on several counts: the very first paved-track race, the first on an oval longer than a mile and the sport’s first 500-miler. Of our first two candidates, that 500-miler and its near-capacity crowd is the early leader.

Several other candidates deserve mention. The inaugural 1959 Daytona 500 was noteworthy, except that NASCAR had been running longer-distance races for years, meaning another 500-miler wasn’t that special. The 1994 Brickyard 400 was huge, but stock car racing was already strong and healthy by then; getting to Indy for the first time was important, but not that important. In truth, everything new beyond the 1970s was simply adding to the foundation that had been built in the previous three decades.

That leaves us with this: both co-favorites for “most important” were at Daytona Beach in the 1970s. By then, NASCAR had found its place in America’s sports consciousness. R.J. Reynolds had signed on as a free-spending sponsor. NASCAR had expanded across the country and built its fanbase, especially on the all-important West Coast. And network television had started playing its role in advancing what many had once thought was just a quaint little regional oddity.

Which leads us to why the two Daytona 500s were so important.

The 1976 race is generally credited with kick-starting what quickly became a thriving sports enterprise. It was on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 15, and involved two of racing’s all-time best drivers from two of its best teams in the year’s most important race. ABC’s popular Wide World of Sports joined for the final laps, the ones that make the race so unforgettable.

Richard Petty and David Pearson began the last lap nose-to-tail, Petty leading by several lengths. Pearson patiently waited until midway down the backstretch before making the traditional low-side slingshot pass entering Turn 3. Moments later, in Turn 4, Petty countered with a low-side pass of his own to briefly regain the point.

But Petty wasn’t quite clear when he moved to the right, hoping to keep Pearson behind him exiting Turn 4. They touched, Petty’s right-rear to Pearson’s left-front, then lost control. They slammed the outside wall and slid toward the checkered flag, maybe a quarter-mile distant. Despite heavy front-end damage, Pearson kept his Mercury moving; Petty’s damaged Dodge stalled in the trioval and would not refire.

The sport’s most recognizable driver could only watch with dismay as his long-time rival chugged to the finish line at 25 miles per hour. Perhaps surprisingly — especially in light of today’s behavior — there were no angry words, finger-pointing or threats from one future Hall of Famer to the other. You know the drill … “That’s racing.”

“Nobody knew it then, but that got everything going,” long-time motorsports writer and broadcaster Dr. Dick Berggren said years later. “It was the first ‘water cooler’ race, the first time people stood around water coolers on Monday and talked about seeing a race on TV the day before.”

There was more “water cooler” talk three years later, after third-running Petty got lucky and won the 1979 Daytona 500 in a most remarkable fashion. This one was maybe more special because it was live from start to finish on CBS-TV and featured some post-race chaos.

That was the year leader Donnie Allison and second-running Cale Yarborough wrecked each other on the backstretch on the last lap. Once Yarborough went low and Allison moved down to block exiting Turn 2, neither slowed or gave ground until they crashed head-on into the Turn 3 wall. Seconds later, Petty, Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt flashed by the scene en route to a 1-2-3 finish.

With blizzard-like conditions forcing millions of Americans inside, the 500 was that Sunday’s best go-to TV choice. It had barely ended when cameras caught Allison and Yarborough (joined later by Bobby Allison) fighting on the apron in Turn 3. (The Allison-Yarborough incident led Petty to joke that he and Pearson had at least wrecked “over on the front side, where everybody could see us).”

So, we’re down to Petty and Pearson in 1976 or Allison and Yarborough in 1979. Forget the first-ever Cup race in 1949, the 1950 Southern 500, the 1959 Daytona 500 and the inaugural Brickyard 400. All were important and memorable in their own way, but not like the 1976 and 1979 Daytona 500s.

Personally, I’m torn between which was more important to the sport. What say you?

Rocky Mount native Al “Buddy” Pearce has spent 53 years covering motorsports, from go-karts to Formula One and everything in between. He worked briefly as a young Evening Telegram intern before becoming a full-time racing writer in 1969. He’s the stock car editor forwww.autoweek.com and is finishing 50 First Victories, his 13th NASCAR book. He’ll be here on Saturdays with insight, history, opinions, news, questions, and critiques about motorsports. He’s in Newport News, Va., at omanoran123@gmail.com.