The 60-minute documentary “Unrivaled: Earnhardt vs. Gordon” is set to debut at 10 p.m. on Thursday on Fox Sports 1.
It’s one of many notable rivalries during Gordon’s career. While there were heated moments with Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and others, the four-time champion said that three rivalries truly stood out during his Hall of Fame career, which produced 93 Cup Series wins.
For Gordon, his three biggest rivalries were against Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and teammate Jimmie Johnson.
The upbringing of Earnhardt and Gordon couldn’t have been more different.
Earnhardt was a second-generation NASCAR driver from North Carolina who honed his skills on the rough-and-tumble Southern short tracks. He came from the old-school era when drivers worked on their own cars and he made his mark, battling against the sport’s greats like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison.
Gordon came from California, first making his name racing open-wheel sprint cars on ESPN’s “Thursday Night Thunder.” While he lacked the mechanical experience, he was well versed behind the wheel, starting racing at age 4 and racing sprint cars by the time he was 13.
Still, the NASCAR crowd wondered why Gordon, who had only been racing stock cars less than five years, was given a top ride in the Cup Series at such an early age.
“I was more of an outsider,” Gordon said recently at the National Motorsports Press Association convention. “They were like, ‘Who is this young punk with a bad mustache and haircut? He’s not one of us.’ It seemed to spark the rivalry between Dale Earnhardt Sr. and myself.”
Earnhardt was a five-time champion by the time Gordon entered the Cup Series in 1992. The next two seasons, Earnhardt won his sixth and seventh Cup titles only to see Gordon win championships in 1995, ’97 and ’98. They continued to battle on the track until Earnhardt’s death in 2001.
The rivalry encompassed much more than the drivers. Old-school fans were drawn to Earnhardt’s black No. 3 Chevrolet, his story of working on his North Carolina farm and his reputation as “The Intimidator.” Younger fans were drawn to the brightly colored No. 24 Chevrolet that Gordon drove and how he brought a whole new attitude to NASCAR.
“I realize how important Senior was during that time when I got to go head to head with one of the all-time greats,” Gordon said. “The things he did in the media wasn’t my favorite. Now, I’m like, ‘Why didn’t I embrace the rivalry more?’ I was so afraid I wasn’t going to be able to back it up on the track.
“The real rivalry with Dale Earnhardt Sr. was how he poked me, the way he drove as ‘The Intimidator’ and he was such a legend going for (championship) No. 8. That made it so recognizable.”
The Earnhardt rivalry was the biggest for the fans, but Gordon’s most intense rivalry was with Wallace. Gordon and Wallace became the drivers to beat on the short tracks and road courses for nearly a decade and it led to some high-profile incidents.
The term “bump-and-run” came into being after Gordon moved Wallace out of the way to win the 1995 Food City 500 at Bristol. Gordon used the move again to win the August Night Race in 2002, and then Wallace retaliated by wrecking Gordon at Richmond.
While the drivers truly didn’t like each other back then, they’ve become friends in the years since.
“I wouldn’t call it hatred, that’s too strong a word, but there were some hard feelings with me and Rusty,” Gordon said. “I bumped him out of the way a couple of times and then he wrecked me. I finally got him to admit it. We laugh about it now and we have a common respect.
“We’ve gone out to the desert three times and have raced in the sand dunes, no trophy on the line but pride on the line, and I love passing him every chance I get. This last time, I couldn’t pass him and I saw he was really happy about that, throwing the sand in my face. We have fun now, but we didn’t have much fun at the time.”
Beyond the way they raced each other, Gordon believes there is another reason while the rivalry with Wallace was so heated.
“When I came in and Earnhardt won his final championship in ’94, I think Rusty was thinking ’95, ’96, ’97, watch out world because I’m going to take over. I was kind of a road block to him.”
Gordon found his own road block with Jimmie Johnson, the driver he helped bring to Hendrick Motorsports as a teammate.
After Gordon won his fourth and final championship in 2001, the Johnson era soon began. Johnson went on to tie Richard Petty and Earnhardt with seven championships. Gordon, meanwhile, didn’t win as often over the final years of his career.
“He was my teammate and other than the first year we competed against each other, that was about the only time I got the best of him,” Gordon said. “We should have gotten the championship in ’07 and we just screwed it up. He came back and beat us and that ticked me off. It also motivated me.”
They had a few on-track scrapes, including one at Texas that put a strain on their friendship for a period of time. For Gordon, one of the best wins in his career was when he outdueled Johnson to move into third on NASCAR’s all-time win list.
“Even though we were friends, it turned into a pretty good rivalry,” Gordon said. “It wasn’t where we didn’t like one another, although the Texas incident is well documented. I probably just got tired of him beating me. My win No. 85 in Atlanta was one of my favorites because I held him off.
“I mean that out of respect because he was driving the same equipment that I was driving and he’s beating me. That didn’t make me feel any better when I was getting beat.”