One of the greatest elements of spectatorship in any sport is rivalry. Whether it’s Yankees vs. Red Sox, Bird vs. Johnson, or Borg vs. McEnroe, some of the greatest sporting events in history include this layer of neck-and-neck competition that makes for dramatic victories and upsets. For NASCAR fans of the 1980s, they had already found their undisputed king, Dale Earnhardt.
The Kannapolis, North Carolina, native created an empire through his image and his undeniable mastery of stock-car racing. The cowboy hat-wearing, blue-collar poster boy looked like the epitome of what a NASCAR legend should look like. That is, until Jeff Gordon showed up.
Gordon, hailing from Vallejo, California, was everything Earnhardt was not. With a humble demeanor, sleek haircut, and style worthy of the pages of GQ, Gordon was the refined newcomer the sport didn’t know it needed. He elevated the fanbase far and wide beyond NASCAR’s Daytona roots—and quickly, at that. “Boy, that thing became iconic in a hurry,” Dale Jr. tells us of Gordon’s No. 24 car.
Unrivaled: Earnhardt vs. Gordon, the newest addition to the MotorTrend App’s growing trove of NASCAR content, explores the two polar-opposite icons at the helm of the stock-car franchise and how their personalities impacted the sport. Many of Earnhardt’s contemporaries serve as interviewees, such as Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Richard Childress, and Rick Kendrick, as well as superfans of Earnhardt’s, like NBC’s Brian Williams and Formula 1’s Daniel Ricciardo.
Nicknamed “The Intimidator,” Earnhardt’s legacy amongst fans and the media was built on an idea of ruthlessness, but his off-duty persona loved to crack a good joke. While the media took to calling Gordon “The Kid,” Earnhardt took to making more pointed jabs at Gordon’s age. Twenty years Earnhardt’s junior, Gordon earned himself a “wonderboy” status amongst race fans, which also garnered a fresh crop of much younger fans than the sport had previously known.
During the 1995 NASCAR Awards Banquet, Gordon took back a narrative that had consumed the media in the months prior, in which Earnhardt suggested that if Gordon won the impending race, he’d have to celebrate with milk instead of champagne. During his speech at the podium, Gordon raised a champagne glass full of milk in Dale’s honor and effectively laid to rest the boyish persona he couldn’t seem to shake. As his fans interpreted it, that was his way of telling his competitor that from here on out, it was for real.
Real it was, when two years later, Gordon would go on to win the 1997 Daytona 500 at age 25—an event Earnhardt, for all his 18 attempts at the title, simply could not yet win. Earnhardt’s camp recognizes this event as the incendiary that awakened something in Dale Sr. to take back his legend status. And that is exactly what he did, during the 1998 Daytona 500, which would be his first and only win of the prestigious race, given his untimely death in 2001.
Though they were fierce competitors, the rivalry between these two champions is only enhanced by their mutual respect for each other. Both drivers served as the standard by which the other driver measured himself. While Unrivaled gives an intimate look at an iconic era of racing, it also documents Gordon’s reconciliation of his rival’s death.
“I didn’t realize how important rivals were—you could easily say that launched my career. On the inside, I thought it was a sign of respect. He wouldn’t have said anything at all if he didn’t care,” Gordon tells us. “I miss him, I think a lot of people do.”
Unrivaled: Earnhardt vs. Gordon, reminisces on the two very contrary sides of NASCAR, or any type of motorsport, to that end: the champagne-soaked glory on one side, the inherent danger and darkness on the other. Whether you’re a NASCAR fan or not, Unrivaled is an incredibly fun trip down one of the most well-known rivalries of all time.
Lead image: Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images.