Rivalries in sports often bring out the best in its participants, raising their intensity and focus to win in their competitive games. From the hard court to the asphalt arena, certain athletes are able to rise above the occasion, leaving audiences in awe and its participants in absolute shock and bewilderment.
Such is the case in NASCAR, where two drivers are able to battle each other during the races by trading paint, trash talking, or dominating races in dramatic style. Points and money are nearly thrown out the window with these dueling competitors, who are more intent on just beating their adversary to the line after a Sunday afternoon drive.
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to witness some of the greatest rivalries in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. Some were as short as a single race, with the score settled by a pit road scuffle, while others lasted for a few seasons, with the competitive fire between certain combatants unable to resolve their conflict until the bitter end.
When I think of rivalries on the track, the first that comes to mind is Dale Earnhardt against Rusty Wallace. Throughout his career, "The Intimidator" wasn't shy about ruffling up the feathers of Jeff Gordon, Geoff Bodine, Darrell Waltrip, and Terry Labonte to name a few.
One driver that simply rose to the occasion, especially against Earnhardt, was Rusty Wallace of Fenton, MO. A Midwest racing sensation who captured the 1983 American Speed Association title, one might say that he was bound for success in a sport that was becoming Earnhardt's pickup game in his hometown basketball court.
Simply put, Dale Earnhardt was the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, and Detroit Pistons all-in-one, somehow universally appealing to the masses, with Wallace symbolizing the Chicago Bulls of the 1980s: good, playoff bound, but often falling short against the dominant force of the period.
In NBA parlance, Earnhardt's style was the NASCAR equivalent of the Detroit Pistons and any of its "Bad Boy" players, whose aggressive style during the late 1980s earned them World Championships. Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, and Joe Dumars were up to the challenge, even if it meant facing the Los Angeles Lakers teams that had Magic Johnson, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, and James Worthy.
Heck, they weren't phased by the Boston Celtics, who had "The Big Three" Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. It didn't matter if they had 16 titles at the time because the Pistons were intent on building a dynasty of their own.
Even if the drivers that Earnhardt competed against consisted of seven-time champion Richard Petty, three-time winner Darrell Waltrip, and a slew of then hot shots Terry Labonte, Ricky Rudd, and Geoff Bodine, to him, they were just mere road blocks to Victory Lane, not impossible adversaries.
While Earnhardt wasn't exactly the youngest driver on the Cup circuit, he sure drove like one, even when the likes of Gordon came along in 1993. If anyone laid a bumper to that No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy, the Kannapolis, NC legend wasn't afraid to teach anyone lessons of racing etiquette, as seen here in the penultimate race of the '93 season.
For "The Man In Black," racing for the best finish meant clawing his way to the front, even if it meant mashing his car's fender up, making contact with other competitors, or by putting up a front verbally and physically with his image as daunting as Darth Vader or The Terminator...well, minus the Austrian accent.
Rusty Wallace was probably the only driver who could hold his own against Earnhardt, whose mannerisms and racing style was eerily similar and as fearless as "The Man". Perhaps it was the fact that he also drove a black car, which had an equally menacing demeanor to the No. 3 machine.
Driving the black No. 2 Miller colors Pontiac Grand Prix/Ford Thunderbird from '91-96, Wallace's drive on the track was equally as brash and abrasive as the words that came out of his mouth. Fenton, MO's hero wasn't afraid to brag about how his pit crew was prime to reel off 17 second pit stops during an era when teams averaged a four-time change at 20-22 seconds.
A man of his word, Wallace backed his words up most of the time, winning 18 races in a two-year span during the 1993-'94 seasons, which placed him in second and third in the championship standings behind Earnhardt. NASCAR had its version of Boston and Los Angeles during the 1990s, with Wallace and Earnhardt often figuring into the battles for victories and titles.
Much like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson's rivalry in the 1980s, some racing fans felt that Earnhardt and Wallace weren't able to see eye-to-eye at all, with their fierce racing leaving them to wonder if hell would actually freeze over with either driver. Well, much like the two NBA greats, the on-track show was simply that: a three-hour battle.
They were truly friends who often waged their friendly rivalries with their cars, even if it was off the heels of a grinding crash in pre-race practice or a harrowing accident on the final lap. These two locked horns for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title in two memorable championship races in 1989 and '93.
A transitional season for the Chevrolet teams, Earnhardt got the handle of the Lumina model with some ease, winning five events (with four of those wins coming with the new car) in 1989. His 14 top-fives and 19 top-10s were as impressive as Wallace's numbers, who won six times and scored 13 top-five results and 20 top-10 finishes.
Basically, those numbers translate into the fourth closest championship race in NASCAR history, with Wallace beating Earnhardt by 12 markers. That season's close title hunt was contributed to a late season swoon by the No. 3 team, plagued by poor finishes or untimely results while the No. 27 Kodiak Pontiac collective urged their way to the Cup crown via consistent, strong performances.
Four years later, their rivalry was renewed during the memorable, tragic 1993 season that saw these two GM teams wage in a season-long affair that resulted in domination and heartbreak.
Such was the case in May 2, 1993, when the white flag flew during the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Earnhardt was leading the field for what appeared to be another trademark victory at the 2.66-mile speedway. However, a pack of cars, notably Ernie Irvan, Jimmy Spencer, Dale Jarrett, and Rusty Wallace were determined to dethrone the restrictor plate king.
As the No. 3 car was shuffled from the lead when the cars raced to the line, Earnhardt tapped the No. 2 Pontiac of Wallace, sending the Miller machine into the grass and the highlight reels of American sports history. His car quickly disintegrated from a multi-million dollar bullet to museum fragments covered in grass sod and dirt.
Worried about Wallace's condition, Earnhardt quickly drove past the start/finish line where the mangled up Miller car was parked. Shaken up, he collected his thoughts on his injured comrade.
"Well I, man those things, there really ain't no explanation for it," Earnhardt said in an interview with Dr. Jerry Punch. "I was going low, and when he cut down, I hit him right square in the left rear and turned him around and turned him over."
The 1993 season saw Earnhardt capturing six races, while Wallace brought home 10 checkered flags for the Penske colors. Combine their win totals and it's more than half the 29-race schedule that year. In the end, it was sweet revenge for "Big E," beating Wallace by 80 points.
While Wallace came up short for the title, his impressive victory total that season came on the heels of a three-race winning streak, triumphing at Bristol, North Wilkesboro, and Martinsville.
Didn't See You Coming
Then there was June of 1998, when both drivers tangled in first and second corners of Michigan International Speedway. Wallace was coming off a controversial tangle with Jeff Gordon on the previous race weekend while Earnhardt's season quickly came undone following his Daytona 500 victory. Frustration was simply one way to describe their emotions heading into Michigan.
Racing for the same inch of real estate during Happy Hour, Wallace and Earnhardt, racing alongside, were committed to somehow getting through the corners unscathed. Instead, both machines made contact, which sent Earnhardt's primary car into the wall and out of seeing race action on the following day.
Fuming and enraged, the 47-year-old racer made a bee-line to Wallace in the garage area, grabbing him by the uniform collar and yelling (something to the extent), "You wrecked my car!" Storming off, the Richard Childress Racing team quickly rolled off their backup mount, which was a short-track specialist.
Despite some heated moments and verbal barrages, the two were spotted having some beers after the crash, proving that the two co-existed, even after "one of them racing deals," as often said in NASCAR.
"Nah, that, you know, was heat of the moment and everything," Earnhardt said to CBS Sports' lead pit reporter Dr. Dick Berggren. "I looked at the reply and I know he didn't mean to wreck me."
As for Wallace's side of the story, the driver of the Penske Racing South Ford was contrite about the ordeal.
"All I can say was last week was racing, this week was my fault," Wallace said to Ralph Sheheen. "I pulled off something stupid. That car was running great. I drove alongside Earnhardt into (turn) one and just flat lost it."
While today's racers carry the excitement and competitive spirit that yesteryear's heroes possessed, when fans want to reflect on a Magic and Larry-like rivalry in the sport, look no further than that of Earnhardt and Wallace. Outspoken, aggressive, and bold, NASCAR had two giants who weren't afraid to mix it up with the youth of the sport as well as the legends of the sport.
Perhaps years from now, fans and journalists will look back on these years of racing and find distinct rivalries that ushered in this phase of racing as one for the record books. As to who that will involve remains to be seen. What's certain is that NASCAR produces some of the finest racing and rivalries in the world.