Where have all the rivalries gone?
by Doug Belliveau
April 13, 2006

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David Pearson leads rival Richard Petty in 1968

NASCAR has been around more than a half a century, and for a majority of that time its history has been highlighted by driver rivalries. In the early years, it was drivers like Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts, Herb Thomas, Buck Baker, Curtis Turner and the Flock brothers who were the favorites to battle each other every week for the victory.

As the 1960’s approached and Daytona Speedway was constructed, new blood came on the scene. Ned Jarrett, David Pearson and a young Richard Petty joined the ranks and kept driver and family rivalries alive. These guys were the rock and roll equivalent of The Beatles vs. Bob Dylan rivalry, and later, Led Zeppelin vs. The Who. Those bands split both the musical fan base and record sales.

Davey Allison leads Bobby Allison as he pushed Richard Petty onto the apron at Daytona in 1992

As NASCAR entered the modern era in the 1970’s, the racetracks were dominated by drivers such as Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons, Cale Yarborough, and later Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, who battled as rivals well into the 1990’s. In the mid-1990’s, Jeff Gordon burst onto the scene and produced an almost instant rivalry with Dale Earnhardt. This rivalry split NASCAR fans almost down the middle, with the established fans staying with Earnhardt and many new NASCAR fans jumping on the Gordon bandwagon. Starting with Gordon’s rookie year, the two drivers combined to win six of the next nine championships before Earnhardt’s tragic death in 2001.

Who are the modern day rivalries on the NASCAR scene? I’d be hard pressed to name one. Some have claimed that Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are a rivalry. Certainly they are two of the most dominant drivers in the last decade. But I wouldn’t put them in the same category as some of the previously mentioned rivalries. What some people today claim to be a rivalry is really more of a feud. Remember Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer from a few years ago? That really doesn’t qualify as a rivalry, since neither driver was dominant or fighting for a championship. Every week it seems that one driver punts another driver out of the way to gain track position. Last week’s incident where Kurt Busch took out Greg Biffle is a good example. That may qualify as “rubbin’ is racing”, but it doesn’t mean it is a rivalry.

#6 Mark Martin battles with #3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. and #24 Jeff Gordon at Daytona in 2001

So why doesn’t NASCAR have the traditional rivalries of yesteryear? Here are three of the contributing factors:

Parity - Never before has there been so many cars on the track each week that have a legitimate shot at winning the race. Sure, there are still the haves and have-nots, with about a dozen wankers that will get easily lapped or drop out of the race. However, there are probably 20 drivers that have a chance of winning on any given weekend. That’s probably double the number of eligible cars from 30 years ago. Rivalries thrive on domination, and there has been little dominance in NASCAR in this current decade. Since 1999, Tony Stewart is the only driver to repeat for the title. It is likely you will never see another driver come close to the seven championships that Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty garnered. Based on the high level of competition, I doubt Jeff Gordon will earn more than one more title in his career.

Multi-car teams - Long gone are the days of one-car teams and owner-drivers winning championships. Being competitive requires the shared information a multi-car team can generate through testing and research. If NASCAR didn’t prohibit it, who knows how many more race cars Jack Roush would have on the track? Five of the last six champions have come from either the stable of Joe Gibbs Racing or Roush Racing. How do you develop a rivalry when many of the drivers who fight each week for position are on the same team? That’s like several players on the same NCAA championship football team fighting for the Heisman Trophy. If anything, the rivalries of today are between owners, such as Hendrick vs. Roush, or Gibbs vs. Hendrick. And that just doesn’t generate the same excitement as Waltrip vs. Earnhardt.

Change – NASCAR has always been in a state of change. The term ‘silly season’ sums up how drivers, cars and sponsors get shuffled every year. But the changes from 2005 to 2006 exceeded those that haven taken place in recent times. Well known drivers that retired, changed teams, sponsors and/or manufacturers included Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Casey Mears, Kasey Kahne, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Green, Sterling Marlin and Michael Waltrip. And late in 2005, the previous year’s champion Kurt Busch got into trouble with the law and didn’t even finish out the season! In general, change can be good in the racing industry. Just look at how Bobby Labonte’s career seems to have been reborn this year in the famous no. 43 Petty car. But constant and significant change does not help develop and nurture rivalries.

Will NASCAR driver rivalries be rekindled in the coming years? Are driver rivalries necessary to keep NASCAR growing and prospering? Only time will tell. There certainly seems to be enough excitement on the track week in and week out. In the meantime, I’m going to go reread the book NASCAR Chronicles by Greg Fielden, and have fond remembrances of the NASCAR driver rivalries of old.

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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