Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Johnson vs. Gordon the 2nd Coming of Waltrip vs. Wallace?

During the course of this season, I have written articles both for Frontstretch and Athlon Sports suggesting that a burgeoning rivalry is on the horizon for NASCAR. First it was Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards, then it was Kevin Harvick and Edwards, and following the dust up at Martinsville, the war of words between Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth heated up again, before quickly extinguishing itself. NASCAR intervened and got themselves in between Brad and Carl, while Edwards pretty much just called Harvick a meanie. That left the Sprint Cup Series once again without much of a rivalry to stoke fan interest or fuel the fire that burns within the diehards. After all, you can’t tell the cars apart anymore, so any manufacturer ribbing and denigrating has long since gone out the Lexan window.

That was until a couple of weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway – on a Monday no less.

After closing in quickly behind Jimmie Johnson, teammate – and co-owner – Gordon loosened the rear of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, and drove under him exiting turn 4. Johnson either took issue with this or thought Gordon moved him over, and subsequently drove into the side of the No. 24 as it went by. Gordon made note of it over the radio, sarcastically referring to Johnson as “Four Time” – as Gordon himself is a four-time Cup champion; albeit winner of the Winston Cup, not the Sprint and/or Nextel Cup.

Afterwards, both drivers said they were disappointed with each other, and then presumably text messaged one another with *: v [* frownie faces.

Last Sunday at Talladega, Johnson blocked Gordon who was closing at well over 10 mph faster than him, causing Gordon to take evasive action to the apron of the track, which then backed him up so far as to become involved in the ensuing wreck between Jeff Burton and Mike Bliss on the front straight moments later. Later in the event, Johnson took himself out driving in a straight line, attempting to cut in front of Greg Biffle, who from the aerial view appeared to be about four feet alongside the No. 48 as Johnson attempted to slide in front of Biffle. Following the event, Gordon’s ire was raised further, as he made it known that Johnson was now testing his patience. Instead of threatening him with waiting until his father gets home, Gordon planted his rainbow colored flag into the Talladega tarmac:

“I am pissed.”


It wasn’t exactly Dale Earnhardt suggesting, “They oughta fine that sumbitch and make him sit out the rest of the year” following a last-lap tangle with Ricky Rudd at North Wilkesboro in 1989 – or Johnson at Daytona in 2005 after being bump drafted and spun exiting turn 2 by Harvick in the qualifying race, imploring Richard Childress to fire him. What it may be however, is the makings of one of the last great pick-a-side fights in NASCAR, the incident between Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip 1989 at The Winston all-star race at Charlotte. There are definite similarities and parallels to be draw between these two. Or four.

Both drivers are a bit polarizing; you’d be hard pressed to find any other competitors who actually have anti-fan clubs in their dishonor. In the late 1990s it was FAG: Fans Against Gordon, featuring a crudely drawn portrait of Calvin relieving himself on the stylized number 24, which was a bit redundant since it was already yellow. Today it is ABJ: Anybody but Johnson.

Not exactly ground breaking in terms of creativity, however I guess we can be thankful that nobody has conjured up a similarly themed anti-Hendrick organization with that same ABH naming convention, because it’s already taken; and that is a bunch that you would be best not to enter into a confrontation with.

Gordon however reminds me a bit of Waltrip. At that time it had been four years since Waltrip won his last title, and his production had slowed down a bit from his peak years from the early and mid 1980s. Gordon’s last crown came in 2001, with the Drive for Five seemingly stalled out on the side of the road. Meanwhile Johnson has rewritten the record books with four straight titles and 50 races since joining the series the year following Gordon’s 2001 Winston Cup. Gordon meanwhile has clearly been the class of the field this season, and very well should have three wins had it not been for late-race wrecks and shoving matches, as well as the third race of the season in Las Vegas, when Johnson’s four tires beat Gordon’s two in the final stint. Waltrip had won three races before the Wallace tap at Charlotte in 1989, and was just 77 points out of the lead at this point in the season.

He also happened to win the third race of the year as well as Martinsville; both races that Gordon should have won in 2010.

During this time period, Waltrip wasn’t exactly the most popular driver in the garage area either. He still had a number of longtime fans opposing him, having been part of the changing of the guard of the early ’80s, winning the races and titles that were once won by Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough, a new breed of driver who was bold, brash and anything but bashful in front of the camera. Gordon likewise was a trendsetter, once he shaved off his horrid moustache and tightened up that mullet. No longer seen only in oil ads or car commercials, Gordon took NASCAR mainstream, appearing in national ads for Pepsi, Ray-Ban, Colgate and even the National Dairy Association with an equally gross milk moustache.

Johnson on the other hand has a loyal following, but you will likely hear many more cheers when his car comes by on flatbed than wheeling into victory lane. It’s kind of hard to call him an up and coming driver, as he has been coming up and up and up since 2002, and shows little sings of leveling off. The nature of the incidents the last couple of weeks and the reaction to them by fans at the track and on any number of call-in shows, forum comments and email received by journalists at large, show a growing support of Gordon and deepening the opposition of Johnson.

Following The Winston wreck, Waltrip suddenly had an army of fans and supporters who had not been there the previous weeks – or even years before. Wallace was now the bad guy and villain, even though at the time he drove a bright white car. Could the same be happening now with Gordon and Johnson?

Very possible, however the scenario surrounding this quarrel is much different than Russell vs. DW.

Gordon and Johnson are of course teammates, but the ties go deeper than that. Their cars operate out of the same shop at Hendrick Motorsports, built side by side and in cooperation with the crew chiefs and team members involved with the Nos. 48 and 24. Gordon is part owner of Johnson’s machine as well, though Rick Hendrick ultimately owns both of their cars. Hendrick has long had a rule with his teams of racing hard amongst each other but do not take each other out. Gordon and Johnson are friends off the track as well, they each married models and both claim California as their hometown (unless its Brickyard 400 weekend – then Gordon is back home again in Indiana), and each share a common eyebrow. Not that I am one to talk; glass houses.

When Gordon was winning his titles, many accused he and crew chief Ray Evernham of cheating and skirting the rules to gain such a competitive advantage. Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus studied under Evernham, and in a sense picked up the success of where Evernham left off. Gordon was NASCAR’s poster boy for popular acceptance over a decade ago, yet they are having a harder time with Johnson’s image, which is even cleaner than Gordon’s was. With both NASCAR and a good portion of the media making such a concerted effort be honored every bit as much as those won by Earnhardt or Gordon under the new and equally polarizing points system, the two are as much alike as they are completely different, with Gordon now assuming a role of sorts of elder statesman, having been competing for over 17 years.

So is it much ado about nothing, or a line drawn in the sand, forcing one to choose a side in this war of words and sheetmetal? With Entourage currently filming its seventh season, this is about as close to a soap opera as many guys are going to get for the time being, and for the female fans, I guess maybe you can revel in the conflicted feelings that two friends have for one another, letting their professional pursuits threaten to undermine the mutual respect they have for each other – will they forever treasure their friendship?!

That is of course unless you still don’t care much for either driver, in which case you can watch with baited breath and nervous tension whenever they get around each other, in hopes that one of them makes contact and ignites a near soccer riot in the stands.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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