In Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt saw a star Dale Earnhardt's fans have lambasted Jeff Gordon for a dozen years, showered him in beer cans, mocked his appearance and minimized his success.
They've missed the point, or maybe the joke, completely.
When Gordon tied the late legend with 76 victories at NASCAR's highest level at Phoenix on April 21, he had a unique opportunity. He had the win, a share of sixth on NASCAR's all-time wins list, and the forum to put it back in their faces.
But as Gordon, 35, rolled to a stop, a call came over the team radio that crewman Aaron Kuehn was rushing over a flag the team had stashed in its hauler since late last summer, when Gordon pulled one win behind Earnhardt. Kuehn handed it inside, unfurling it.
Earnhardt's iconic "3" in black and red.
This was not the gesture of a scorned man. It was the gesture of a friend, a colleague, an apprentice. And an accomplice in a ruse, a manufactured class war and textbook rivalry that benefited not only both men, but NASCAR as it readied to welcome in millions of new fans in the mid 1990s.
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said the on-track rivalry served as the hook for a new generation of younger fans from all over the country.
"The Earnhardt-Gordon rivalry was as good as any we've ever had in the sport, " he said.
But it wasn't as nasty as many believed.
"Earnhardt was a teaser, " said Ray Evernham, now a team owner who won three championships as Gordon's crew chief. "But I think deep down inside they had a ton of respect. They did some business deals. If they were teasing and antagonistic, it was part of the show. Earnhardt was a master at selling hats and T-shirts." More at SPTimes.com