NASCAR’s last great rivalry couldn’t have been between two more different drivers.
In one corner, there was Dale Earnhardt, the blue-collar Intimidator, who was flirting with Richard Petty’s all-time mark of seven championships in the early and mid-1990s. In the other, Wonderboy: Jeff Gordon, the polished and groomed youngster from California whose meteoric rise began on the day Petty’s storied career ended and who may ultimately have kept Earnhardt from owning the championship record outright.
But NASCAR’s last great rivalry also couldn’t have been between two more similar drivers.
Despite their polar opposite personalities and different driving styles, both had a relentless need to win. Put either within sniffing distance of the lead and they would find a way to get there. And there was a mutual respect between the drivers if not their legions of fans.
In Driver vs. Driver, we take a look into the careers of the sport’s greats and not-so greats. The rules are simple: drivers’ careers must overlap, and they must have something in common that makes comparison not only valid but also inevitable.
This month, we delve into some classic questions: Petty or David Pearson? Petty or Earnhardt? Earnhardt or Gordon? Gordon or Jimmie Johnson? From the pre-modern era into the 21st century, there really are no winners; that’s up to the ages to decide. But there sure are some great battles.
Earnhardt would win his seventh title in 1994 at the age of 43, tying Petty’s record of seven. Gordon won his first race that same season at 22, and later his second. In 1995, Earnhardt won five races and scored 23 top-10 finishes, championship-caliber numbers… but it wasn’t enough. Gordon toasted Earnhardt with a glass of milk from the champion’s table at the season-ending banquet, and the rivalry would only grow until Earnhardt’s untimely death in 2001.
Gordon didn’t match the seven-title mark, but how does he really compare to Earnhardt? Adam Cheek and Jesse Johnston go head-to-head on the Intimidator vs. Wonderboy.
Earnhardt’s presence on the track was something to be feared every week, his ominous black No. 3 car in the mirrors of his competitors an omen of an impending pass.
The Intimidator raced against Wonderboy for majority of the 1990s and into the 2000s – their first meeting came during Gordon’s first-ever Cup race in 1992, his lone start of the year. The two then spent eight full years racing against each other, their final matchup coming in the 2001 Daytona 500, which ended with Earnhardt’s death.
One race in 1992, eight full seasons between 1993 and 2000, one race in 2001. Oddly poetic.
Earnhardt’s career began in 1975 and concluded in 2001, spending about a quarter of a century in NASCAR’s top division, just as Gordon did. Indeed, Gordon holds an edge in quite a few statistical categories when compared to Earnhardt, and, indeed, championships aren’t everything.
However, to start with the big picture – Earnhardt sits tied for the most titles in NASCAR history – he was the second to reach seven championships, taking over right after Petty (Petty’s last title was in 1979 and Earnhardt’s first was in 1980).
Earnhardt hit the seven-title mark just 15 years after Petty did it, while the next to reach the milestone – Johnson – took 22 years to do so.
Gordon’s titles came within a very, very short span – he won his first in 1995, then back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998, closing it out with a 2001 crown. 14 full-time seasons followed without a title for Gordon. Now, there’s something to be said for the implementation of both the Chase and playoffs putting a wrench into that statistic, but it’s still an incredibly long amount of time.
Meanwhile, Earnhardt spaced his championships out over 15 years, winning his maiden trophy in his first full-time season (1980). Titles number two and three didn’t come until later in the decade, but then he started reeling off one championship after another – back-to-back in 1986 and 1987, again in ’90 and ’91, and again in ’93 and ’94, a mark of pure consistency.
Earnhardt’s championships seemed to equally come with either razor-thin margins or gaps of several hundred points, too – dominant and clutch in those title years, he was equally adept at handling both situations. Four titles came by margins of at least 195 points (two of them by more than 440 and one of those close to 500), and the other three were with 80 or fewer points separating Earnhardt and the pack.
The Intimidator was also the third-oldest driver to win a championship, with his seventh coming at the age of 43. Besides Bobby Allison and Lee Petty (both at 45 years of age), no other driver had finished the season first in the standings at that age.
Additionally, he recorded an average finish of 4.3 in the standings over his 21 full-time seasons – Gordon managed a 5.43. Never finishing lower than eighth besides 1992, Earnhardt was in the top five in points at the end of the year 14 times in 21 years – Gordon sits at 11 in 23 seasons.
It may be easy to say that Earnhardt and Gordon raced in very different eras. That’s true, but Earnhardt had to outlast the likes of Cale Yarborough, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Allison, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin for his championships. Gordon, while faced with strong competition and some of the same drivers, wasn’t as successful.
It’s not just statistics, either – smaller, iconic moments of brilliance or, sometimes, amusement, shine through in Earnhardt’s legacy and contribute to his place in NASCAR history as one of ultimate badassery.
The famed “Pass in the Grass,” where contact with Elliott sent Earnhardt’s No. 3 sliding into the Charlotte infield during the 1987 Winston, didn’t end with a wrecked racecar. Earnhardt gathered his car back up, kept going at speed and won the race.
Richmond in 1986, when he took it upon himself to lean out of his window and clean his windshield himself.
Maybe it’s the 1997 Daytona 500, where Earnhardt’s car was turned and flipped on the backstretch. The 46-year-old, after getting out of his car and surveying the damage, decided the car was still drivable and got back in. Visiting pit road for repairs, he finished the race just five laps down and was still running at the checkered flag.
Do all of these elevate his legacy? Sure. I, however, think it’s the 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway that defines Earnhardt’s brilliance on the track. Not his trademark aggression, not a moment of controversy – a moment that’s cliché, sure, but still impressive.
October 15, 2000. Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. Six laps to go.
Over these six laps, the field goes through its typical accordion effect at superspeedways – starting out single- or double-file throughout the field, bunching up as the laps wind down. Earnhardt runs 18th.
A three-wide, contact-heavy pass with Rich Bickle and Wallace, a pass on none other than Gordon and about three-quarters of a lap later, Earnhardt’s in the top 10.
He’s seventh at the line, fourth one lap later, and takes the lead for good with two laps to go, teammate Mike Skinner and son Dale Earnhardt Jr. to his inside as the field flashes by the stands. Earnhardt wins the race with an incredible last-ditch effort, heading to victory lane for what would prove to be the final time.
It’s only fitting that this aggressive and, in a word, perfect, of a drive would be Earnhardt’s last win. – Adam Cheek
It’s late into the 1990 season, and the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series is making its trip to Rockingham Speedway in North Carolina. Everything goes according to plan with practice and qualifying. But that’s when the grid would be met with shock, after a 19-year-old newcomer named Gordon would qualify his No. 67 Pontiac on the outside of the front row for his debut NASCAR stock car race. Race day comes, and Gordon holds his own at the beginning portion of the race. But his car grew more and more loose, and by lap 34, Gordon could no longer hang on. He would crash off of turn 2 and end the day in the 39th position. Little did everyone know, this race would kickstart a legendary career. And the numbers don’t lie about just how impressive his career really was. 805 Cup series starts, 93 wins, four championships, 81 poles, three Daytona 500 wins, five Brickyard 400 wins… the list goes on for miles.
Gordon was born in California, but his youth was mostly spent racing midgets and sprint cars in Indiana, a state with more dirt tracks than you can shake a stick at. Gordon began to master the art of sprint car racing in his teens, steadily advancing up through the USAC sprint car ranks. When the ’90s came around, Gordon ended up pursuing stock car racing as the next avenue to advance his talent. He made his aforementioned Xfinity Series debut in 1990. Then, after running two full-time Busch Series seasons in 1991 and 1992, Gordon would make his long-awaited Cup Series debut in the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He started the race in 21st and ran 164 laps before crashing out and finishing 31st. Nonetheless, Gordon’s legacy in the Cup Series was only beginning.
Gordon’s 1993 rookie season was no Johnson, Davey Allison, Denny Hamlin or Tony Stewart. He scored 11 top-10 finishes, one pole, and finished 14th in points. Sounds alright for a rookie. But he also had 11 DNFs, as well as a goose egg in the wins column. Gordon would change that in 1994, scoring his first two career wins in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the inaugural Brickyard 400 at IMS. Then the following year in 1995, at the ripe, young age of 24, Gordon won seven races en route to winning his first NASCAR Cup Series championship over, you guessed it, Earnhardt. Ironically enough, the 1995 season was the only season in which Earnhardt and Gordon would finish 1-2 in the final points standings. And out of the 258 races they’ve competed in together, they would finish 1-2 in a race only seven times, with Gordon having a 5-2 advantage over Earnhardt.
As Earnhardt’s on-track performance slowly began to decline, the “Wonder Boy” would set the later half of the ’90s on fire. He would collect two additional championships in 1997 and 1998 (with 13 wins in 1998 alone), two Daytona 500 victories, and two victories in the All-Star Race. That’s without mentioning Gordon’s matching Elliott’s feat in 1985 by winning three out of four crown jewel races to receive the Winston Million award in 1997. After Earnhardt’s passing in the 2001 Daytona 500, Gordon would take full reign of his own destiny. He locked up his fourth series championship in 2001, picked up another Daytona 500 win in 2005, and would stay competitive and strong all the way up to the 2016 Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, where he finished sixth in his final start at the paperclip oval.
The one clear stat in which Earnhardt was able to better Gordon at was the number of championships they each have won, seven to four. But Gordon has certainly come close in different seasons to winning more championships, and possibly tie or surpass Earnhardt. In 1996, Gordon amassed 10 wins, but fell short to teammate Labonte, who had much more consistency than Gordon throughout the season. There is also the argument that if the Chase/playoffs system was never implemented, Gordon would indeed be a seven-time Cup series champion. In 2004, he was in the thick of the inaugural Chase championship battle, but came up short to Kurt Busch and Johnson in that fight. 2007 would be another strong year for Gordon, winning six races and scoring an astonishing 30 top-10 finishes out of 36 races. But Johnson’s four-race win streak late in the season allowed him to surge ahead and win his second consecutive championship. And let’s not forget 2014, when Gordon tallied up five wins during the season, and was in the midst of a strong playoff performance that was derailed after his infamous altercation with Brad Keselowski at Texas Motor Speedway.
Finally, let’s compare the different driving styles each had, Earnhardt’s more aggressive and obviously intimidating (no pun intended), to Gordon’s being more clean and sly. Thanks to Gordon’s background in midget & sprint car racing, his sharpened skills in those cars helped him execute well in transitioning to stock cars. Driving midgets and sprint cars teaches a driver how to utilize any groove they can find on the track, and how to time moves with clean and cunning precision. Gordon’s less aggressive, yet smoother driving style proved that one can win just as many races without making enemies to do it. Gordon made fewer enemies on the track than Earnhardt and had far less altercations, yet still delivered victories on a consistent basis.
With all of the numbers crunched, as well as other outside factors taken into account, they all illustrate why I believe “Wonderboy” triumphs over “The Intimidator” in this classic driver matchup. – Jesse Johnston