Jeff Gordon: Rivalry with Earnhardt “changed my life forever”

The rivalry between Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon – and their respective fan bases – helped define NASCAR during its era of biggest expansion.

Jeff Gordon: Rivalry with Earnhardt “changed my life forever”

Sports are filled with rivalries and NASCAR history is replete with many. Yet the battles between the wily seven-time Cup Series champion Earnhardt and the new-kid-on-the-block, Gordon, changed the sport for generations.

Fox Sports Films, in collaboration with NASCAR Productions and DLP Media, has developed a 60-minute documentary which explores the racing legends’ relationship, both on and off the track.

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon

Photo by: Fox Sports

Gordon vs. Earnhardt

The show was executive-produced by Gordon, who now serves as an analyst for Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage. Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash during the 2001 Daytona 500.

The documentary, “Unrivaled: Earnhardt vs. Gordon,” will premiere at 10 p.m. ET Feb. 14 on Fox Sports 1 following coverage of the Duel at Daytona qualifying races.

“My time in the broadcast booth has helped me realize how important those roles or those rivalries and personalities are. I kind of wish I had played to it a little bit more at the time,” Gordon told Motorsport.com in a recent interview.

“Of course, if I had known the results on the track were going to turn out the way that they did, I probably would have.

“For whatever reason, my time coming into the sport and being able to go up against one of the all-time greats, if not the greatest, and have his fan base and my growing fan base kind of going toe-to-toe, put me on the map and changed my life forever.”

Jeff Gordon, Henrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress Racing

Jeff Gordon, Henrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress Racing

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade Photography

Rivals on the track, friends off

Fierce competitors behind the wheel, the two vastly different men were fast, yet unlikely, friends outside the race car. From their family backgrounds to their driving styles, paint schemes and fashion sense, the two could not have been more polar opposites.

The documentary also explores the drivers’ polarizing fan bases, allegiances still evident today in the signs, flags and merchandise commonly found throughout the infields of race tracks.

“It was a lot of fun reliving these moments,” Gordon said. “Now I look back at it, especially with getting ready to go into the Hall of Fame, and realize how important that was not only for my career but also for NASCAR through that period of time.”

While friends off the track, Earnhardt’s death still left Gordon with many unanswered questions surrounding Earnhardt’s motivations.

“Taking this opportunity of going back and kind of analyzing his role, I wish more than anything that I could pick his brain today to ask him why he did some of the things that he did,” Gordon said.

“The things he did on track, or the things he did in the media or why he took me under his wing from a business partner standpoint – I would love to know some of those answers to that but we’ll never know.”

Among the many subjects interviewed included in the documentary are Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Rick Hendrick, Ray Evernham, Richard Childress, Larry McReynolds, JR Rhodes, Don Hawk, Kyle Busch, Mike Helton and Brian Williams.

Dale Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt

Photo by: Fox Sports

Could it happen again?

Gordon believes the intense competition and emotions tapped by his rivalry with Earnhardt is something that can still happen in NASCAR today.

“The thing is, it wasn’t made up. That started because of our competitiveness on the track and how we were racing for a championship early on in my career and he was going for his eighth championship,” Gordon said.

“It’s going to take the absolutely perfect storm. It takes people that are battling on the track and they’ve got to genuinely dislike each other. On the track, I could not stand racing wheel-to-wheel with Dale Earnhardt Sr. because I knew that I might not do anything wrong and he might still just shove me out of the way.

“You’ve got to have that kind of dynamic where someone has the type of confidence on one end that they can get away with that and then you have to somebody on the other side who isn’t afraid to get shoved around and fight back.

“You’ve got to have enough confidence in what you’re doing both on track and off track and it’s got to be embraced by both.”

shares
comments
Hickory Motor Speedway reunion showcases NASCAR’s past

Previous article

Hickory Motor Speedway reunion showcases NASCAR’s past

Next article

Chad Knaus: "I can't change who I am" working with William Byron

Chad Knaus: "I can't change who I am" working with William Byron
Load comments
From the archive: Dale Earnhardt’s final Autosport interview Prime

From the archive: Dale Earnhardt’s final Autosport interview

The death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500 shocked NASCAR to the core. At the Daytona 24 Hours, two weeks before his fatal accident, ‘The Intimidator’ shared his expectations of challenging for an eighth Cup title with JONATHAN INGRAM, in an article first published in the 15 February 2001 issue of Autosport magazine. Little did we know then what tragedy would unfold…

NASCAR Cup
Feb 18, 2021
The lasting NASCAR legacy after Dale Earnhardt’s death Prime

The lasting NASCAR legacy after Dale Earnhardt’s death

On February 18, 2001, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Dale Earnhardt – the fearless ‘Intimidator’ – was in his element at Daytona International Speedway. While his own DEI team’s cars ran 1-2 towards the finish line, his famed #3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo was playing rear gunner to block any late runs from the chasing pack. As the cars tore through Turns 3 and 4 on that fateful final lap, Earnhardt maintained the strongarm tactics that encapsulated his persona… but his actions in those moments sadly proved to be his last.

NASCAR Cup
Feb 18, 2021
Inspired by Pitbull, the “revolution” sweeping through NASCAR Prime

Inspired by Pitbull, the “revolution” sweeping through NASCAR

The NASCAR Cup Series is changing. Whether it be the gradual morphing out the seasoned drivers of yesterday as the next generation step up, a radical calendar shake-up featuring more road courses than ever before and the prospect of an all-new car on the horizon, stock car racing’s highest level is nearing the end of a huge facelift.

NASCAR Cup
Feb 16, 2021
The NASCAR storylines to watch out for in 2021 Prime

The NASCAR storylines to watch out for in 2021

This weekend's Daytona 500 kickstarts a NASCAR Cup season that promises plenty of intrigue courtesy of new owners and a refreshed calendar. Here's what you need to know ahead of the new season…

NASCAR Cup
Feb 13, 2021
Why Kyle Larson can't blow his big shot at redemption Prime

Why Kyle Larson can't blow his big shot at redemption

From a disgraced NASCAR exile, Kyle Larson has been given a chance of redemption by the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports squad. Effectively replacing seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is no easy billing, but Larson has every intention of repaying the team's faith...

NASCAR Cup
Feb 11, 2021
Why Roger Penske is an American motorsport icon Prime

Why Roger Penske is an American motorsport icon

In this exclusive one-on-one interview, Roger Penske reveals the inner drive that has made him not only a hugely successful team owner and businessman but also the owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar. He spoke to David Malsher-Lopez.

IndyCar
Dec 28, 2020
Why NASCAR's latest second-generation champion is just getting started Prime

Why NASCAR's latest second-generation champion is just getting started

Chase Elliott's late charge to the 2020 NASCAR Cup title defied predictions that it would be a Kevin Harvick versus Denny Hamlin showdown. While the two veterans are showing no signs of slowing down, Elliott's triumph was a window into NASCAR's future…

NASCAR Cup
Nov 18, 2020
Why Kyle Larson deserves his second chance in a cancel culture Prime

Why Kyle Larson deserves his second chance in a cancel culture

“You can’t hear me? Hey n*****” Those fateful words uttered by Kyle Larson, spoken into his esports headset on April 12, were directed at his sim racing spotter – but instead they quickly became amplified around the world via social media, including his own Twitch stream.

NASCAR Cup
Oct 29, 2020