After a pair of incidents that ended with torn-up race cars and hurt feelings (not to mention Denny Hamlin’s hurt back) it seems as though the Hamlin-Joey Logano spat is the latest in a line of mini-rivalries to crop up when two drivers just can’t seem to stay away from each other on the racetrack. Before that, there was Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer, culminating in an ugly ending at Phoenix. It seems as though every time two drivers are angry with each other after a race, people want to make the incident into a brewing, long-term rivalry for the ages. The only problem is… they aren’t.
NASCAR needs a rivalry, and it’s certainly easy to see two drivers feuding and to cultivate that into something it’s simply never going to be. The majority of the time, the type of feud we’ve seen between Hamlin and Logano dies out after a few weeks, or at least within a few months. They’re simply not that sustainable; the heat of the moment brings out the worst in people, but the heat of the moment doesn’t last. So, while a true rivalry would be good for the sport, and in fact one has been brewing for months, we’re looking for it in all the wrong places.
The best rivalries in NASCAR aren’t born out of anger, but out of respect. Richard Petty and David Pearson didn’t try to put each other in the wall every week (it happened on occasion, but it wasn’t the reason they’re still the most talked about pair in NASCAR history). The same goes for Richard Petty-Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough-Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt-Rusty Wallace, or Earnhardt-Jeff Gordon. Yes, they tangled on track form time to time, racing each other hard at the front of the pack most weeks. That leads to the odd crash, no matter how talented drivers are. But think about it — people are still talking about these men, about the respect they shared, about who was the better driver, about who should have beaten whom any given day or year. These battles become rivalries because the drivers are vying to be the best of their year, of their era, of NASCAR history. They don’t have to like each other, but they do race each other as hard as they can… with respect. That is the type of rivalry NASCAR needs.
While short-term spats generate headlines, which is good for the sport, they’re just that — short term. When the anger fizzles, letting cooler heads prevail, the excitement ends. But a true, deep rivalry doesn’t fall by the wayside after a matter of weeks — some never go that way at all.
Right now, we’re all watching to see if Denny Hamlin will get back in his car this year thanks to an unprotected retaining wall and an ill-advised on-track move. But ahead of him, there are two drivers who are setting the stage to join the storied rivalries of the past… and hardly anyone is paying attention.
Both drivers are champions, both are polarizing among fans; you either love them or you hate them, and there isn’t much in between. Both are bulldogs on the track; if either one gives an inch, it’s because his car isn’t handling right or he doesn’t have enough fuel or tires to push the issue to the ragged edge. Both are headstrong, confident, often mistaken for arrogant. Both are at the top of their game right now… while the other greats of this era are beginning to fade, these two show no signs of giving up their spots at the top.
Their names? Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson. The reigning champion and the one simply known as “Five-Time.”
This rivalry is the one that could bring back a little magic to the sport. It’s not unlike one we saw nearly two decades ago, between seven-time champion Earnhardt and an up-and-comer named Jeff Gordon who was determined to unseat Earnhardt from the top. Sometimes he did, and sometimes Earnhardt showed Gordon that the old adage about old age and treachery is alive and well. It was great for NASCAR; at a time when the sport was gaining in popularity, Earnhardt and Gordon were going toe-to-toe and door-to-door, slinging barbs off the track (though the two were friends) while rubbing tires on it. Fans were nearly forced to choose sides — not many would admit to pulling for both of them. It was a good-natured rivalry between both the drivers and the fans, one that only gained steam through the years. For every little Jeff Gordon beanie doll being dragged behind a golf cart or race fan on a string, there was an “anyone but Earnhardt” sticker or T-Shirt. We’ve missed that type of rivalry in the sport since Earnhardt’s untimely death. Now, we could have it again.
Keselowski and Johnson have traded barbs at times. Johnson recently criticized Keselowski for being too outspoken, and last fall, Keselowski all but accused Johnson (among others) of cheating with the rear suspension before new rules did render what he’d been doing illegal. There have been some jabs in the media… but on the track, the two put on a show. Last fall at Texas, the pair were racing for a championship, and either could have used a bumper to win the race and possibly the title. Neither did, instead choosing to settle it cleanly and with the kind of respect that each has always shown the other.
You can dislike Keselowski for his outspokenness or aggressive tendencies on track. You can dislike Johnson for his PC demeanor or his seemingly effortless string of race wins. But if you watch them race each other, there has been nothing but mutual respect. Off the track, the pair are two of the most genuine people out there, though they’re as different as two people can be. In the end, they both want one thing and one thing only – to win races and titles – and both are capable of doing that seemingly at will.
This rivalry is the one that NASCAR and the media should be all over, because it’s not going to blow over in a couple of weeks — it’s going to linger and grow as long as the two are at the top of their game. If it was promoted carefully, fans would have to take sides, a situation that can and should lead to the kind of camaraderie among them that diehard fans have had since the early days of the sport. Fans still argue over Petty-Pearson: which one was better, which one was the best. They still talk of the racing between Earnhardt and Wallace, Waltrip and Allison, Earnhardt and Gordon.
In contrast, most of the rivalries du jour that stem from anger fade from memory, with only a handful of exceptions. It’s the spectacular, clean racing we remember years and decades later. And you don’t get much better than that battle last fall in Texas, with everything on the line.
So, while short-term rivalries generate talk, and that’s definitely exciting in the short term, they aren’t what the sport has built sixty years of history on. The rivalries that last are the ones that send fans to their respective corners but somehow, at the same time, pull them together in the spirit of the sport. They build a bond—between each other and between fans. They put on the best kind of show every time they race each other. That is what NASCAR needs as it works to redefine itself in a new era. And with Keselowski and Johnson, the latest in a long line of storied rivalries it’s there for the taking.
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