Like gladiators of old locked in a colosseum showdown, NASCAR drivers often find themselves engaged in heated confrontations, turning the race track into their own personal battlefield. While we all appreciate the harmonious ballet of well-executed pit stops and the poetic grace of a perfectly timed pass, let’s not kid ourselves: the rivalries are what give the sport its edge.
From jaw-dropping photo finishes to unexpected crashes and public feuds to surprising moments of respect and camaraderie, these rivalries have given us some of NASCAR’s most unforgettable moments. So, let’s not waste another lap. Here are the biggest rivalries among drivers in NASCAR.
Jimmy Spencer and Kurt Busch
Riding into the world of NASCAR as a somewhat audacious rookie, Kurt Busch managed to ruffle the feathers of various other drivers, but perhaps none took more offense than Jimmy Spencer.
Hailing from Pennsylvania, Spencer was a racer with an old-school edge, who found significant triumph in modified races, yet had only a smattering of victories in the Cup Series.
On the flip side, you had Busch, a young, spunky talent who emerged from the shimmer and shine of Las Vegas.
From the moment Busch entered the circuit of what was then the Winston Cup Series, he and Spencer clashed wheels on several occasions. Prime examples include the 2001 Phoenix, the spring 2002 Bristol (which paved the way for Busch’s maiden Cup victory), and the subsequent face-off in Indianapolis later that summer.
However, the incident that truly made headlines was at Michigan in 2003. Spencer, pursuing Busch en route to the garage, famously caught up with him only to land a punch square on his nose. A NASCAR moment that has become synonymous with their heated rivalry.
Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski
Ah, the early years of Brad Keselowski’s entry to the NASCAR stage, when he and Carl Edwards were essentially the poster boys for on-track feuds.
Think back to that scene in Talladega in 2009 when, right there at the finish line, Keselowski sent Edwards spiraling into the catchfence. The spectacle was nothing short of jaw-dropping. And, oh, let’s not forget Edwards’ riposte in Atlanta the following year. The mangled piece of machinery that was once his race car serving as his weapon of choice to return the favor to Keselowski.
Then there was yet another clash that same season in the Nationwide Series at Gateway. Quite the tumultuous beginning to their relationship, right? However, since then, it appears that Edwards and Keselowski have evolved into somewhat amicable rivals.
Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon
When the vibrant Jeff Gordon erupted onto the NASCAR Cup circuit at the tail end of ’92, spiraling into his rookie full-time stint in ’93, Dale Earnhardt found himself rankled — at least on the race track. The effortless triumph that Gordon seemed to claim didn’t sit well with Earnhardt, a racer who had not only earned his stripes climbing the NASCAR ladder but had paid a hefty price in dues as well.
This tension gave rise to a dichotomy of the sport’s first outlaw (Kurt Busch, don’t take offense) versus the sprightly newcomer. The man draped in black facing off against the quintessential All-American lad sporting an imaginary white hat.
Let’s zoom in on the 1995 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a splendid showcase of their rivalry. Here’s where Earnhardt took the cup and smugly touted himself as the inaugural victor of the Brickyard. A friendly reminder of Gordon’s victory in the preceding year only prompted another self-assured affirmation from Earnhardt that he was, indeed, “the first man” to claim the 400 — a comment that naturally ruffled Gordon and his fandom.
This rivalry, a heady mix of Gordon and Earnhardt, likely fueled NASCAR’s rocketing popularity surge in the mid-to-late ’90s and the ensuing decade. The fans loved it. In their eyes, it was a clear-cut good versus evil contest. No blurred lines. You were either rallying behind Gordon or Earnhardt, or you stood in opposition. As simple and straightforward as it gets.
Intriguingly, a friendship blossomed between Gordon and Earnhardt, particularly towards the twilight of The Intimidator’s career — a fact we only discovered post Earnhardt’s passing. A relationship that added a new layer to this famed racing narrative.
Richard Petty and David Pearson
Two titans of the track, Petty and Pearson, set the gold standard for racing rivalries. Time and again, their engines roared in a near-constant duel on the asphalt.
Petty’s astounding 200 NASCAR victories might have been even more record-breaking had Pearson not been there to apply the brakes. Conversely, Pearson’s own trophy collection, boasting an impressive 105 wins, could have swelled even larger if not for the formidable obstacle presented by Petty.
Their battles resulted in them securing the top two spots in 63 of their head-to-head victories. When the rubber hit the road and these two revved their engines, it often felt as though the other drivers faded into the background. The focus was fixed firmly on the duel between Petty and Pearson.
Despite their intense competition, a solid thread of mutual respect tied them together. Rarely did their racing descend into dirty tactics. Yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find another duo so dedicated to outdoing each other on the race track. Every race was another chance to claim bragging rights, making the Petty vs. Pearson rivalry the one to watch.
Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon
Brimming with hot-blooded intensity, the vehicular drama between Tony “Smoke” Stewart and Jeff Gordon kept NASCAR fans riveted to their seats. The tally: seven championships divided between this duo of high-octane gladiators.
Cutting through the haze was Stewart, embodying the perfect fusion of aggression and audacity. His steely determination and unwavering passion became the lifeblood of his career, evident in every twist and turn of the track. On the flip side, Gordon was all about precision and finesse, a shining exemplar of calculated moves and polished racing. The juxtaposition of their styles set the stage for an enthralling rivalry.
Fanning the flames of this rivalry was the 2000 showdown at Watkins Glen. Stewart and Gordon clashed in a heart-stopping race to the finish line. This on-track joust culminated with Stewart’s triumph, a testimony to their intense competition.
But beneath the surface of heated duels, a bond of mutual respect gradually evolved between these NASCAR titans. This camaraderie was poignantly exhibited when Gordon paid homage to Stewart’s illustrious career during his retirement in 2016. The Stewart-Gordon saga proves that while the spirit of rivalry sparks competition, respect ultimately fuels the soul of sport.
Who are some other drivers who have had it out for each other on and off the track you feel should have made the list? Let us know in the comments below and across social media.