Every sport has its greats, its Hall of Famers, its legends that devotees speak about with whispered awe. The true lifeblood of any sport, however, runs through its rivalries, when the drive to become the best becomes more personal and when one figures absolute dominance in the sphere is always in doubt due to a hated rival.
Though NASCAR rules have recently become stricter with regard to revenge-based tactics and such, history is laden with examples of head-to-head battles in individual races and the title chase. And some would argue that the NASCAR rivalry hasn’t gone away in the 21st century, it’s just taken on different forms.
For your consideration, five great rivalries in NASCAR history.
Richard Petty vs. David Pearson
What is generally considered the greatest rivalry in NASCAR history was a month-to-month year-to-year dogfight between perhaps the two greatest drivers of their era culminated with what is generally considered the greatest finish in a NASCAR race. Video here.
Ultimately, Pearson and Petty finished 1-2 in either combination 63 times from 1963-1977; Pearson garnered a slight edge at 33 wins to 30 over a guy who would pile up an “unbeatable” 200 wins. The careers of these two all-time greats would come to a head in 1976, and propelled the sport into national consciousness the way only a good rivalry can. (Think Larry Bird’s Celtics vs. Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the 80s.)
“Silver Fox” Pearson was driving the maroon-and-white Wood Brothers no. 21 Mercury; Puraltor sponsored the car, a machine heavily influenced by the Canepa Design’s Bill France who wanted to fulfill his desire to “inject international sports car endurance competition with a taste of ‘good old boy’-style stock car racing.” Petty having been won back to Plymouth in 1970, thanks to the Plymouth Superbird, which appears in Pixar’s movie “Cars,” Petty was now driving a Dodge. Petty Enterprises’ 1976 version of number 43 was a Charger built in 1974 that Petty has called his all-time favorite.
And now to THAT race…
On the final lap of the Daytona 500, Pearson finally manages to pass Petty on the inside coming around turn 4, but the obstacle of another, slower car driven by Joe Frasson presents itself. Both Pearson and Petty went high on the track to get by Frasson, and Petty manages to retake the lead by passing Pearson on the inside before making what he later freely admitted was a mistake: Petty seeks to pass Pearson to the right in order to put #21 squarely behind him. Petty’s right rear bumper makes contact with Pearson’s left front bumper. Both fishtail into the final lap, hitting the barrier wall at different points, and smashing their vehicles in different ways. Petty spins to a stop on the infield grass, unable to start his car. Pearson is nudged just enough by the reappearing Frasson who, in attempting evasive maneuvers, spins Pearson’s car just enough so that it faces the finish line. Because Pearson had “had the presence of mind to engage the clutch … his engine is still running.”
Pearson crosses the finish line for the win at about 20 MPH, Petty is pushed across by his pit crew for second place, Jackie Stewart goes nuts, watch video and NASCAR gains instant notoriety by dint of the greatest one-two combination the sport has ever had.
Cale Yarborough vs. the Allison brothers
Sure, Pearson and Petty went mano e mano on the track dozens of times, but their fierce rivalry never actually came to blows as in the infamous Daytona 500 in 1979, an incident that Yarborough called in a television interview (video) “one of the biggest things that ever happened to the sport.”
The Allison brothers Bobby and Donnie gained quite a reputation as the bad boys of the sport in the 1970s, heading up a group known in the sport as the “Alabama gang.” Those Allison Boys resembled their namesakes of the Old West as they caused animosity from all the 70s greats, but “No grudge was more flammable” than that between them and Yarborough.
Off-track, Bobby Allison’s blood got to boiling after the 1973 National 500. In that race, Allison finished third behind Yarborough and Richard Petty, and subsequently disputed the legality of Yarborough’s and Petty’s engines. NASCAR ruled against Allison, and Bobby never forgot the slight, though he did receive “satisfactory restitution.”
Though neither Allison boy nor Yarborough was listed as winner in the 1979 Daytona 500, this was a race that brought the three drivers national notoriety and a place in the sport’s history. Earlier in the year, Bobby had nipped Yarborough at the finish line of the IROC 6 event to finish third to set the table for Daytona.
After an early lap had all three cars leaving the track, Yarborough and Donnie Allison fought their way back into first and second places. On turn 3 of the final lap, however, Yarborough’s #11 tried for a tight squeeze between Allison and the inner grass. Yarborough was bumped onto the grass, came back onto the track, and the two cars began knocking on each other’s doors until they appeared to lock together, causing a collision with the wall that knocked both out and gave the win to Petty.
What happened next got all the attention. Already eliminated from contention, Bobby Allison pulled off the track. Yarborough, already chewing out Donnie, saw Bobby and hit him with his helmet. The road-rage induced fistfight was on, creating a truly hateful rivalry mostly missing from the sport today, but remembered fondly by many as a defining moment in NASCAR, as a reason “Why We Love NASCAR” and as simply “great entertainment.”
Jeff Gordon vs. two generations of Earnhardts
Modern NASCAR fans often lament the lack of a good old-fashioned blood-and-guts rivalry in their favorite sport these days, with league officials doing their best to crackdown on plays at revenge and, well, fistfighting, in an era were live broadcasts of races are commonplace.
Ironically, there has been something of a rivalry – albeit of a more abstract nature – going on in the sport for more than ten years. Jeff Gordon, today’s undisputed greatest NASCAR driver, took his first Winston Cup title in 1995, defeating back-to-back reigning champion Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt. Then 24, the win signified the overnight sensation’s entrance onto the scene and overthrow of long-time no. 1. The season of 1995 was called the “embodiment of Old School NASCAR vs. New School NASCAR,” a war between North and South, a fight between Beauty and the Beast.
Earnhardt Sr. would never add another to his seven titles before his death on the track in 2001; Gordon in his #24 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS won three between 1995 and 1998, adding a fourth in the year of Earnhardt Sr.’s passing. Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been working his way to the top under his father’s guidance, actually splitting the driving in a single car for some races in 2000-2001, and taking the Busch Series Cup in 1998 and 1999.
Today, both Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon own cars on the circuit as well, creating some sort of head-to-head opportunity in the majority of NASCAR races today. Fan bases for the two have “create[d] a grandstand Mason-Dixon line that exists to this very day.” And, though it may be folly to call Gordon-Earnhardt Jr. a full-fledged rivalry, as we’ve yet to see a full-on championship battle between the two, these guys will surely go down as rivals for title of The Greatest in the post-Earnhardt Sr. era.
In the 2007 season, Gordon needs two Nextel Cup victories to best Earnhardt Sr.’s 76 (he’s nine shy of Darrell Waltrip’s all-time best 84). While in the ultra-civilized 21st century NASCAR world, Earnhardt Jr. will probably offer congratulations, it’s hard to belief competitiveness would allow The Intimidator’s son to merely roll over and let Gordon win.
Darrell Waltrip vs. Bobby Allison
Though the period of the 1970s and 80s was loaded with names like Petty and Pearson, Yarborough and Earnhardt, making for true golden age of the sport, the Nextel Cup competition from 1981 to 1983 were all about Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison.
Interestingly, it was a true golden era for Buick as well. Both Waltrip and Allison drove Buick Regals, producing a three-year mini-dynasty for Buick, sandwiched between six years of dominance by Chevrolet’s Monte Carlos. Buick has no other Nextel Cup championships to its credit.
Waltrip took the flag in 1981 and 1982, with Allison finishing second both times. Allison turned the tables on Waltrip in 1983, and Waltrip took home silver that year. It was a true battle between those NASCAR enthusiasts loved to hate. Waltrip’s domination in the early ‘80s often got him booed by Petty-adoring fans and others. Unless, of course, you asked Waltrip, who claimed they were merely cheering for his sponsor, Mountain Dew.
The year 1983 was a peak year for Allison in terms of popularity as well, marking the third year he’d been voted Most Popular Driver by NASCAR fans, an award he’d surely never threaten for again, thanks to the bad-boy rep of the Alabama gang.
Allison’s career was cut short due to a brain injury suffered in a 1988 crash, thereby depriving fans of another points battle like those of the early decade. Currently, Waltrip and Allison are tied for third on the list of number of NASCAR wins at 84: a good way for history to remember a pair that shaped 80s NASCAR.
Ford vs. Chevrolet
In sports, we must always remember that, while the individuals come and go, franchises live on. And the most memorable of sports rivalries are those larger than a history of an athlete’s career (or even a lifetime): Lakers vs. Celtics, Yankees vs. Red Sox, Brazilian football vs. the world. In NASCAR, that rivalry is Ford vs. Chevy.
The two participants have been involved in NASCAR racing since the very beginning, though the early to mid-1950s were dominated by the likes of the Hudson Hornet and the Oldsmobile 88. (Incidentally, some sources state that 1949’s “Rocket 88” by Bill Haley and Comets is the very first rock ‘n’ roll song.)
It was the switch of 1956 champion Buck Baker from the Chrysler 300-B to a Chevrolet in that key year of 1957 – NASCAR’s version of the Babe Ruth trade. Thus began a rivalry between the companies that would see one of the two take 31 of the next 49 Nextel Cups, including 15 of 17 since 1990 and five of the last six.
The list of winning drivers for the Detroit motor companies naturally reads like a “Who’s Who” of racing history, with Chevrolet definitely the Yankees of this rivalry. Ford started putting drivers in Tauruses beginning in 2003 and now the similar Fusion, a formula that has made this race for superiority too close to call in this decade.
NASCAR champion drivers for Chevy through the years include Baker, Rex White, David Pearson, Benny Parsons, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and even Richard Petty, who came ‘round to Chevrolet in 1979.
Ford champions include Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, and Dale Jarrett. The only champion to drive for both sides was Jarrett’s father Ned, who took 1961’s title with a Chevrolet Impala then switched to a Ford Galaxie in 1964,only to finish second to a first-time winner named Richard Petty, and took it all in 1965 for his last championship.
Today, the biggest teams in American motor sports are said to be Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports; Roush is Ford, Hendrick is Chevy, and the rivalry among fans is more bitter than ever. As a NASCAR enthusiast, you can love Ford drivers or you can love Chevy drivers, but you can’t love both. According to one story on the competition, “when Mark Martin falls off the pace, even he anxiously pulls for one of his Ford stablemates to beat ‘that other car.’” (Ironically, since publication of the article, Martin has switched to Chevrolet for the 2007 season.)
Ah, the drive to win at all costs against a nameless force: Now isn’t that what the greatest of rivalries – and sports itself – is all about?
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