Thomas Bowles · Sunday October 23, 2005
Those who have followed NASCAR for a long time know that the sport was, at one time, not so full of the clean-cut, politically correct drivers that seem to pop up most everywhere lately. In fact, the first full-race broadcast of the Daytona 500 back in 1979 was ended by a physical fight on the backstretch, caused when Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough crashed out of the race while going for the win.
Yes, rivalries are part of the old breed of NASCAR racing, something that’s been handed down through the generations. Richard Petty and David Pearson. Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. It seems everywhere you look in the 50 years of NASCAR history, you’ve got drivers going back and forth, throwing verbal jabs at each other with names like “Jaws” and “Boy Wonder” and trying desperately to get in each other’s head in a verbal game of tug ‘n’ war. Seems like it’s been a part of NASCAR since the dawn of time…until now.
Looking over the direction of the sport in the past couple of years, it seems that the term rivalry has slowly faded into the background in the new era of Nextel Cup racing. Sure, we still have drivers getting angry at each other in what I’d like to call “one race blowups.” Robby Gordon throwing the helmet at Michael Waltrip at New Hampshire is a perfect example, as well as Kasey Kahne going a little cuckoo over Kyle Busch. But not only have those emotions not carried over into future races, but heavy fines from NASCAR have dispelled the drivers keeping those hard feelings, and even worse yet, those “rivalries” aren’t occurring with the Top 10 drivers in the Nextel Cup points standings.
With so much focus indeed being put on the Chase and the intensity of the ten drivers fighting for the Cup, you would think that a good competitive rivalry would come out of the deal. Instead, the media’s been grasping at straws up until this weekend, with any little quote that could be useful for stirring things up taken out of context and placed in such a way to generate a response out of another driver. Even this weekend, Chad Knaus’ feeble attempt at trash talk was shoved down Tony Stewart’s throat so many times you’d think he’d have one of his angry fits with the media.
In case you missed it, in Saturday’s practice Knaus basically indicated over the radio that while Tony thought he had the best car, it was his driver Jimmie Johnson who could—- and would—- overtake the 20 car when it came around to Sunday afternoon. Tony’s immediate response was to pretty much refer to Knaus as a seventh-grader, claiming he would settle things on the track on Sunday—- and settle them he did, pushing Johnson out of the way with 10 laps left en route to a second-place finish that would allow him to retake sole possession of first place in the points, albeit by 15 over Johnson.
But by the end of Sunday’s race, Johnson wasn’t the center of Stewart’s attention—- instead, fellow Chase contender Greg Biffle had Stewart all stirred up. Biffle fell a lap down with less than 100 laps left in the race, but that didn’t stop him from racing Stewart and Johnson hard on the track—- even though there was no real reason to do so, as both the 20 and 48 were on the lead lap and had no effect on where the 16 was going to finish.
After several bumps and bangs with Stewart, the temperamental Tony was not pleased after the race, calling Biffle an idiot and threatening to strangle him if he did that again on the track. Johnson wasn’t as angry but also discussed Biffle at the press conference, confused as to why the 16 was racing the two contenders when no one had anything to gain in the situation by Biffle doing so.
Bottom line, though, is it seems even these quotes will be old news within a week. Tony plays poker and hangs out with Biffle outside of the track, and Jimmie is NASCAR’s version of Mr. Good Guy—- doesn’t seem likely he’d be willing to make Biffle a rival when he tries to project a completely different image.
And that seems to be the way things are all around with this championship Chase. Newman and Wallace still aren’t talking as Penske Racing teammates, but no one seems to be making anything of it, and neither driver is feeding juicy quotes to the media about the other one. The five Roush Racing drivers won’t speak ill will of each other; in fact, teamwork and friendship is one reason they’re all in the Chase to begin with. And Jeremy Mayfield is still trying to figure out how to be competitive in the Chase; he need not spend his time bashing everybody else.
All this stuff means that for the time being, the term “rivalry” remains dormant when it comes to the top of the Nextel Cup points standings. And that’s a shame; if NASCAR’s looking for new and different ways to bring fans into this sport, it’s the raw emotion of seeing two drivers who truly don’t like each other go at it on and off the track that inspires excitement among the fan base, from the obsessed fan to the casual observer. And while it’s great to have happy-go-lucky drivers like Carl Edwards…don’t get me wrong here…it’s emotion like the Ron Hornaday – Jack Sprague rivalry in the Truck Series that can truly get the sport going at times it needs it, such as in the aftermath of an embarassing tire controversy at Lowe’s last week.
Chad Knaus tried his best, and while it wasn’t great, it was a start. Let’s hope two drivers knock heads at some point and finish it off…because the competition of sports doesn’t leave room in the rulebook for everyone to be like a character from Leave It to Beaver.
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