75 things for NASCAR’s 75th anniversary: Greatest rivalries

We are closing in on the final handful of weeks of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stock car series’ 75th anniversary campaign. To celebrate, each week through the end of the season, Ryan McGee is presenting his favorite top-five things about the sport.

The five best-looking cars? Check. The five toughest drivers? We’ve got it. Top five mustaches? There can be only one, so maybe not.

Without further ado, our 75 favorite things about NASCAR, celebrating 75 years of stock car racing.

Previous installments: Toughest drivers | Greatest races | Best title fights | Best-looking cars | Worst-looking cars | Biggest cheaters | Biggest what-ifs | Weirdest racetracks | Best racetracks | Biggest scandals | Weirdest announcements | Greatest fights

Five greatest rivalries

As NASCAR’s 75th season winds down to its final three races, we have also entered the most intense stage of our NASCAR 75th anniversary celebration, the green/white/checkers of our top-five countdowns. So, no more of the cutesy stuff. It is time to stand on the loud pedal and let the rough side drag. We just hope someone worthy of the challenge will run door-to-door with us until we get there. In other words, we need a rival. Heck, we all need a rival, but especially racers. They live for them.

As Jean Girard reminded Ricky Bobby: “God needs the Devil. The Beatles needed The Rolling Stones. Even Diane Sawyer needed Katie Couric. Will you be my Katie Couric?”

So, grab a can of Perrier, a loaf of Wonder Bread and keep an eye on that pain in the butt who refuses to stop filling your rearview mirror, as we reveal our top five all-time NASCAR rivalries.

Honorable Mention: Bruton Smith vs. NASCAR

As we have stated so many times during these countdowns, it is impossible to imagine NASCAR becoming what it is without the guiding hands of the France family, from Big Bill to Bill Junior to now, with Jim France, Lesa France Kennedy and Ben Kennedy. But it is equally difficult to make any sort of guess at where the France family’s pet project might be had they not been pushed at every turn by their colleague/arch-nemesis Bruton Smith.

Back in the day, Smith attempted to form a league to rival NASCAR during its formative years and went on to not-so-secretly back other similar efforts over the decades that followed. He brought in Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters to fund the construction of Charlotte Motor Speedway, who in turn went to court vs. the France family trying to form a drivers’ union. During NASCAR’s Modern Era, it was Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. that bought and built racetracks around the nation in an arms race versus the France family’s International Speedway Corporation.

For a half-century, the France clan and Smith fought, sued and pointed fingers. By the end, they also grew stock car racing into a billion-dollar business.

5. Tony Stewart vs. (insert name here)

When I started writing this entry, it was going to be about Tony Stewart and his feud with fellow sprint car sprint car graduate Jeff Gordon in the early-2000s, a clash of championship titans that raged on for five years and resulted in at least three major crashes. But then I remembered Smoke’s ongoing dustup with Matt Kenseth a decade later, the one that resulted in him hurling his helmet at Kenseth’s car at Bristol. Then I remembered his “little rich kid” rift with Joey Logano. Then I remembered his televised fight with Robby Gordon at Daytona. Then I remembered him going after the entire media center, including me.

An hour after I started writing this entry, I was still coming up with people that Stewart battled with on the track and in the garage. So, yeah, “insert name here.”

4. Darrell Waltrip vs. The Establishment

Before there was Smoke and even prior to a young, reckless Dale Earnhardt being nicknamed Ironhead by the veteran superstars he kept wrecking, there was Jaws. When Darrell Waltrip arrived in the Cup garage of the 1970s, he did so with a silver tongue, introducing the NASCAR world to the art of talking trash.

He angered Richard Petty by declaring The King’s reign was over, ticked off Bobby Allison by calling him a cheater and pissed off Cale Yarborough by questioning the legendary tough guy’s intelligence. It was a frustrated Yarborough who labeled him Jaws, explaining “he’s like that shark in the movies who won’t stop flapping his gums.”

Waltrip made them all even more livid when he proceeded to start beating them on Sunday afternoons. He wound up winning three championships and a perfect sum of 84 races, which tied him with Allison for what was then-third on the all-time wins list and, even better, gave him one more career victory than Yarborough.

3. Jeff Gordon vs. Dale Earnhardt

Like Stewart, there were so many options here because so many viewed Earnhardt as their biggest rival. All those legendary Cole Trickle vs. Rowdy Burns scenes in “Days of Thunder,” from the door-banging rental car race to the “Japanese inspection” meeting with NASCAR brass, are true stories taken from Earnhardt’s ongoing mid-1980s spat with Geoff Bodine. And I once witnessed two lawyers on a corporate team-building retreat get into a roll-on-the-floor fistfight over an Earnhardt vs. Rusty Wallace debate at the height of their ’90s No. 2 car vs. No. 3 car tension.

But Gordon vs. Earnhardt became bigger than all of those because it was a rivalry of cultures. Earnhardt, aka The Man in Black, was the dominant force in the sport when Gordon arrived in 1992. He was a middle-aged North Carolinian, all belt buckles, blue jeans and beer. In contrast, Gordon was a 20-something Californian with blow-dried hair who dated models and drove a rainbow-colored car.

The reality is that we never got to see them both consistently at the top of their game on the racetrack at the same time, although there were definitely moments (see: the 1997 Daytona 500). After Earnhardt’s resurgent 2000 season, an ’01 showdown felt inevitable, but Earnhardt’s death denied us that dream.

2. David Pearson vs. Richard Petty

The battles between the Silver Fox and The King were so transcendent they become NASCAR’s version of the Steelers and Cowboys or the Dodgers and Yankees, names and battles that were known not merely among auto racing or sports fans, but among every single American, especially during the 1970s. It was smooth vs. rough around the edges, North Carolina vs. South Carolina, Dodge vs. Mercury, Wood Brothers vs. Petty Enterprises.

They rank 1-2 in wins (Petty’s 200 to Pearson’s 105), poles (Petty 123, Pearson 113) and even second-place finishes (Petty 157, Pearson 89). They ran 551 races together, Petty winning head-to-head 290 to 261, but of those 551 races they combined to win 205 of them, both finished in the top five more than half the time and in the top 10 more than 60% of the time. Both. Holy cow. They finished 1-2 a whopping 63 times, Pearson winning 33 to Petty’s 30.

If all they had done was pull off the 1976 Daytona 500 wreck-and-roll finish, that would have been enough to make them legends, but that might not have even been their best race finish at that track (see: Pearson’s fake engine trouble and slingshot victory in the 1974 Firecracker 400). Pearson fans still say that if he’d chosen to complete in more full seasons, he would have won seven championships like Petty. Petty fans still say that’s sour grapes. Even now, decades after Pearson or Petty made their final Cup starts, their rivalry lives on, as I documented in this story from the 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

1. Ford vs. Chevy

With all due respect to Toyota, Pontiac, Plymouth, even Studebaker, take your pick, when it comes to auto manufacturers, the Blue Oval and the Bow Tie have been the driving force of both victory and animosity since stock car racing began so many decades ago. They rank 1-2 in all-time Cup wins, with Chevy’s 850 and Ford’s 727. The next closest is Dodge way back at 217. Every single driver in the NASCAR Hall of Fame drove for at least one of them, and most steered both.

Whenever one has achieved an edge on the racetrack, the other has immediately cried foul and their millions of fans and American highway loyalists have hollered along with them. It is Coke vs. Pepsi, Apple vs. Microsoft, and Mastercard vs. Visa only if they were all played out not in corporate boardrooms but on superspeedways covered in steel and traveling 200 mph.

Hey, when’s the last time you saw a sticker in the back window of a pickup truck that showed the kid from Calvin and Hobbes with a Ford logo on his shirt urinating on a Chevy logo or vice-versa? Hell, I saw that on two different vehicles just today.