Tale of Two Champions: Gordon and Johnson Rivalry Brewing Up In NASCAR

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IApril 27, 2010

FONTANA, CA - FEBRUARY 20:  Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 DuPont Chevrolet, and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, share a conversation in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway on February 20, 2010 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

It was bound to happen sooner than later, right?

At some point, two of NASCAR's most dominant champions in the past 15 years were going to have this moment—beating the living sheet metal out of each other, certainly showing the true colors of both racers.

While this kind of tension would cease to exist in Formula One per team orders, stock car racing lends itself to the kind of verbal and sheet metal barrage only comparable to Charles Dickens or Shakespeare's works. Whether it's lovers, siblings, or friends, there comes a point when the best dyadic relationships have their falling out moment.

Montague and Capulet, anyone?

OK, so Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson's families aren't at war with each other. These two competitors have been "broing" it up over the past several years much like How I Met Your Mother's Ted Mosby and Barney Stinson, with a dominant figure accompanied by a "wingman."

Some would argue that Barney (Johnson) accompanies Ted (Gordon) in their daily activities at MacLaren's—or the venue hosting the next Sprint Cup race. Or vice versa, depending on your take.

One's clearly been the master, while the other's taken their lead and advances, benefiting the individual in power more so than the sideman.

Their rather status quo relationship has been tested in the past two weeks, which in NASCAR parlance translates to a true rivalry.

In what has been shaping up as one of the most exciting seasons in recent years, the 2010 season has been filled with some old school moments, with drivers dueling and seeking revenge on the track like Captain Ahab and Moby Dick on asphalt.

For those who are weary and want politically correct racers, the following should be skipped, for fear of breaking the hearts of racing fans who aren't keen about drivers displaying emotion in a sport that's been beleaguered, though supported, by its correctness. Otherwise, keep on reading.

Case No. 1

Prior to the start of the season, some drivers carried some residual animosity towards Brad Keselowski, who certainly mixed it up on the Sprint Cup and Nationwide circuits with drivers like Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin.

While aggressive and talented, the 26-year-old racer was a target for some NASCAR drivers, who quietly sought for redemption against the hard-charging driver. In other words, Keselowski was "going to get what he deserved."

Well, the Pep Boys 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway eased those worries, as Carl Edwards, whose race was marred by a tangle with Keselowski, decided to pull a page from Days of Thunder and perhaps Ken Schrader's playbook from the 1990 Cup season.

Then, the impossible happened: the normally cool-mannered veteran got payback with the upstart, taking the young gun for a spin on the quad-oval of the 1.54-mile track.

All hell broke loose afterward, as the No. 12 Dodge went airborne, flipping over briefly before making heavy contact with the outside retaining wall along the first corner of the track. While Edwards intended to teach Keselowski some on-track etiquette, the results were greatly magnified and ramified with one of the most violent wrecks in NASCAR history.

Ultimately, NASCAR parked Edwards after the incident and placed both men on probation for three races, essentially just slapping them on the wrist rather than sending either to their rooms via suspension. Clearly, the sport was willing to break away from its vanilla image, greatly stirring up drama, attention, and talk all around the sporting world.

Case No. 2

Earlier this month, another case of the talented, but unharnessed, youth versus the wily veteran occurred at Nashville Superspeedway. The NASCAR Nationwide Series race on April 3 played host to the James Buescher and Jason Leffler Show, with this incident getting somewhat more personal than the Kesleowski incidents.

Buescher and Leffler were racing for position in the Top 20 in the early stages of the event, steadily moving to the front. In typical fashion, two cars racing in double formation in tight corners translated to "one of them racing deals," where Buescher made slight contact with the Leffler machine.

Smashing into the outside retaining wall between turns one and two, Leffler's No. 38 Great Clips Toyota Camry was reduced into a mangled mess rather than a bulletproof rocket. Understandably, the Long Beach, Calif. native was agitated, and it clearly showed once his crew made repairs to his car.

During the closing stages of the race, Leffler decided to school the youngster with some sheet metal, taking out Buescher from a decent finish. Leffler went as far as to say that he was sure Buescher's "girlfriend's dad will write another check." Personal? You damn well bet it was!

Then there's Gordon and Johnson...

Perhaps NASCAR's stars hearkened back to the old school drivers and races, in which emotion, pride, and winning meant more than good looks, money, and fame. Not since the big bloom during the 1990s has the Cup and Nationwide Series witnessed such purity in almost all aspects of the sport.

After all, when's the last time that Jeff Gordon displayed such emotion at the track, showing his displeasure and anger over a crash, much less his two-week long spat with Jimmie Johnson?

While the 38-year old legend has his moments in which fans conclude that the four-time champion can "do no wrong," there comes credence and legitimacy with his frustration and actions. Having been defeated by his once-apprentice turned master in Johnson since 2003, some have wondered if the 82-time race winner still has it to be a competitive force for victories and titles.

Lately, that urgency has been on display and prevalent with the pride of Vallejo, Calif., whose cars have finally been able to truly stand up to the challenges of the No. 48 Lowe's/Kobalt Chevy team's cars and manpower.

For once, it appears as if the "Rainbow Warriors" remember what the No. 24 teams of past did under the tutelage and leadership of former crew chief Ray Evernham.

Recently, when NASCAR journalist Dustin Long interviewed the perennial headwrench, Evernham felt that current leader Steve Letarte fails to remind Gordon of the obvious aspects of the race, such as cleaning his tires or pit road speed limits.

Sure, he's one of the sport's best, and perhaps that in itself makes a crew chief like Letarte assume that his driver doesn't need the pampering of a Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton, or Kurt Busch. That said, there's never a bad time to state the obvious with a driver, including Gordon, despite his countless accolades over the years.

Now, Gordon and his No. 24 team have a full blown on-track game of brinkmanship with the sport's most dominant entity since 1995-'98. Chad Knaus and Johnson have been the DuPont Motorsports crew's biggest adversaries, greatly elevating the games of each full-time team on the Sprint Cup tour.

In essence, the Lowe's collective are like the spectators and participants running from an angry pack of bulls, which would be Gordon, Letarte, and any member of the No. 24 team. The question isn't if the bulls will catch the fans, but when it'll happen.

Surely, both drivers and team owner Rick Hendrick will give the "everything is good" and happy talk that is often delivered when star athletes under the same umbrella are at odds with each other. Sponsors and their fan bases will feel comforted and relieved hearing how both groups are fine and that they're buddies.

However, this writer knows not to believe it because it's inevitable. Honestly, it's quite healthy for two of the sport's best drivers to finally combat and clash like true competitors, not two "bros" going for dates at the bar.

Think of the great race finishes that may transpire over the course of the season, with the sport's titans battling like Romulus and Remus. Texas and Talladega were the appetizers, with Gordon and Johnson reenacting Cole Trickle and Russ Wheeler's tense relationship.

Gordon has openly questioned his teammate's tactics and ethics in both races, going as far to say that the No. 48 has been testing his patience and pissing him off. That's far from the man who'd normally say something along the lines like, "Oh, we just battled hard and he beat me."

Instead, it's a man frustrated over another long losing streak, one that's happened despite the progress and revitalization of the No. 24 team. Their cars and pit crew have been among the best, worthy enough to take a true shot at winning the title, provided that the finishes are there.

Even if Hendrick speaks to both, the prospects of their rivalry might exactly be what the sport's sorely needed. For years, fans, critics, and competitors have wondered who'd stand up to Johnson and Knaus, as well as when a change in champions would take place.

You can go the distance, we'll find out in the long run...

What will happen with these two in the long run? Maybe they'll have some moments similar to Don Henley and Glenn Frey at Long Beach in 1980, which severed their association and, ultimately, their band for 14 years.

Eventually, The Eagles got back together in a moment that was dubbed as "Hell Freezes Over," alluding to a quote that Henley once said when he was asked when the band would reunite following their tumultuous breakup.

Perhaps nothing will happen at all. It's nothing new in the sport, as Dale Earnhardt experienced that with Mike Skinner from 1997-'01, as well as Wally Dallenbach, Jr. and Mark Martin in '93. It simply just happens.

On Johnson's end, he's been perceived as a titlist void of personality and emotion, seemingly grabbing a trophy and speaking to the media as an android carries out a task on a starship captained by a Frenchman with an English accent (oops, that's Star Trek: The Next Generation! ).

Much like Gordon during his dominant years, Johnson has been trying his hardest to show the fans and media his true colors.  He's been sporting a beard in the past two seasons, as well as performing some rather questionable stunts (like the golf cart incident of 2007), as well as accidentally cutting his finger with a knife during the 2009 Rolex 24 sports car race.

It's Mano a Mano at its best, a quarterback rivalry, and two brothers pitching against each other in the World Series. Whether you're their parent, coach, or friend, what unfolds on the field of play surely leads to excitement and competitiveness that'll create a buzz and stir with the masses, as the Gordon and Johnson rivalry has been doing recently.

So have at it, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. You're two of the greatest champions in recent times; race like it and go for wins, trading paint as needed. And if you have to, beat the living heck out of each other, even if it's the last lap at Homestead-Miami with either racer in the top-two in a close points race.

May the best champion prevail.


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