NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR Needs a Rivalry, But Are Those Days Gone?

The last couple of years in NASCAR have been ones marked by race fans looking for more. More competitive racing, more consistency, more excitement. And NASCAR, to their credit, has tried to give fans some of the things they have asked for-the spoiler will return in a couple of weeks, start times are uniform, and the racing rules made the Daytona 500 memorable. But there is one other thing fans want, and it’s the one thing the sanctioning body can’t make a rule change to give them.

NASCAR needs a rivalry.

The sport’s history is dotted with rivalries: Petty-Pearson. Yarborough-Waltrip. Waltrip-Wallace. Earnhardt-Gordon. But since Dale Earnhardt’s death nine years ago, there hasn’t been a true rivalry for fans to take sides on. At least not the type of rivalry that carried on for whole seasons, even whole careers. Sure, you have a few short-lived spats that last a few weeks or a few months; in 2009, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch couldn’t get out of each other’s way, and Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski had a stretch of wreck-me-I’ll-wreck-you-back, but neither have carried over, and neither left any kind of lasting impression on well, anyone.

So, who should become instant rivals in a NASCAR that is routinely called too predictable, too vanilla (incidentally, vanilla is the No. 1 selling ice cream flavor, so perhaps it’s an a misnomer to call someone you aren’t fond of vanilla.)? What rivalries would make the fans stand up and cheer? Before that, though, what makes a rivalry a rivalry, anyway?

Contrary to what many fans seem to believe and want to see, a true rivalry isn’t about drivers trying to put each other in the wall on a weekly basis. It isn’t crews nearly coming to blows every week, and it isn’t about taking somebody out to the parking lot after a race (in fact, that might be a way to end a rivalry before it starts). In fact, there is a level of respect, even if it is a grudging respect, between rivals. That takes Hamlin and Keselowski out of the mix, because theirs was a grudge match born of total lack of respect.

Rivalries in racing through the years have been more about bragging rights than about knocking each other out of races. They have been about winning versus finishing second, about retiring a badly wrecked racecar versus finishing the race, about finishing on the lead lap versus one lap down. All of that means that there were on-track tangles, of course. When Rusty Wallace turned Darrell Waltrip at Charlotte, it brought new flavor to their building rivalry – for the first time, Wallace, not Waltrip, was the bad guy, and it made people take notice.

A couple of years back, it looked like Carl Edwards and Johnson might become this kind of rivals – the kind who raced their wheels off to beat the other, dropping a fender to the other here and there while duking it out for wins and titles, all while respecting each other completely and going home friends at the end of the day. By late 2008, the two looked like the ones who might polarize fans into their respective camps, but then 2009 came a long and while it was business as usual for Johnson, Edwards hit a slump of epic proportions, and the rivalry was over as quickly as it began.

Looking at the last decade, it may be that changes to racing and the dominance of drivers like Tony Stewart as the decade opened, and now Johnson, has forever changed the way drivers and fans look at the sport and the rivalries within. There is no clear-cut good guy and no real villain. It’s hard to have a rivalry when one driver is dominating – there is no trading of wins like in the days of Petty and Pearson. In the 1990s, Jeff Gordon seemed to be Earnhardt’s polar opposite on and off the track. Gordon was very young and very good, and to top that off he was clean-cut and well spoken, simply driving his cars to the front by outclassing the field. Earnhardt was older and one of the best there ever was, and he was the working man’s driver – a little rough around his blue-collar edges, didn’t speak much if the situation didn’t warrant (he tended to talk with his racing) and drove with a single-mindedness that would bring him through the field, one car at a time, looking like he worked his ass off for it. Fans polarized toward one or the other, and the rivalry was part of the reason that NASCAR’s popularity grew exponentially in the ’90s.

And you just don’t have that today. In part that’s basic demographics. The older veteran driver working his way through the field these days is Gordon, sans the blue-collar appeal, and the youngster rubbing Gordon’s face in it is Johnson – Gordon’s own teammate, the driver Gordon himself put in the No. 48 car in 2001, facts which effectively put the kibosh on a rivalry from the get-go. While Gordon must have moments (probably during the race at Las Vegas) where he wishes he’d pushed Buckshot Jones a little more heavily to Rick Hendrick as a possible driver, neither of the two is going to start anything in the public rivalry department.

The other driver who might make up the veteran half of a rivalry is Stewart, who is more cantankerous than Gordon anyway, and who will not hesitate to use the chrome horn if it suits his purposes. But here again, it takes two to tango and nobody has stepped into the role of Stewart’s chief foil.

While I stand by what I said before, that NASCAR cannot simply hand the fans a bonafide rivalry, the sanctioning body does take some of the blame for the lack of them. While NASCAR has talked the talk about drivers showing more emotion, there remains one larger obstacle to rivalries: the Chase. In the old days, drivers could risk a lot more in the name of pride. Now, the first part of the season is about making the Chase and about learning things that will help in the Chase. The final 10 races is about points. And that’s all NASCAR. To say otherwise, to lay that on the drivers and teams, is a fallacy – they’re only doing everything they can to win under the current rules. But there are no throwaway races anymore, and the “wreckers or checkers” mentality has faded for many drivers as they realize that finishing is more important than the personal satisfaction of getting into something with a fellow competitor. Dumping the Chase wouldn’t create an instant rivalry, but it could help make one more worthwhile.

There are certainly drivers who would make half of a great rivalry. NASCAR has its bad boys – Stewart, Kyle Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya and now Keselowski. And it has their polar opposites in Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Edwards. Any combination of the above – heck, Johnson vs. anyone – have the potential to create a lasting rivalry. All of the above can win races, and all have a polarizing effect on fans by themselves. But so far nobody has stepped to the plate.

NASCAR needs an old-fashioned rivalry. Not a grudge match, not a wreckfest, but a pair of drivers who can create factions among fans who have something in common to cheer about, to boo, to pit their drivers head-to-head, week after week. But is the time for this type of racer past? Or are the next contestants merely biding their time, calculating on how and where to make their next move? If it’s the latter, it’s time to make a move. If it’s the former, it’s a sad day indeed.

And another thing…

It was kind of nice to have a race weekend where the main focus was not Danica Patrick. Other than that, though, it was same old, same old. The ending saved an Atlanta Cup race which was a bit uninspiring in the middle laps, and too many teams got no mention on the broadcast.

NASCAR made absolutely the right call parking Edwards at the end of the race. Edwards admitted that he spun Keselowski on purpose, but didn’t mean to flip him. This is the problem with purposely wrecking someone on the fastest part of the sport’s fastest track. You don’t know what will happen, and that means if you meant to wreck a guy, you meant it when he flips. Period. I’m all for rubbing being racing, but Edwards had no call to get into BK in the first place – if you watch the earlier incident between the two, Edwards clearly comes down on Keselowski, who is holding his line all the way at the bottom of the track. Racing incident more than anything, with most of the fault on Edwards. Edwards says Keselowski wouldn’t give him room all day, yet the video clearly shows otherwise. Both times Edwards got into Keselowski, Keselowski clearly held his line, and Edwards got into him anyway. Apparently, if Edwards needs room, everyone else is supposed to drive in the infield grass to avoid him.

Finally, how many times do guys have to buy their way into races via buying points, while faster cars go home, for NASCAR to wake up and smell the coffee? It’s both a sham and a shame.

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