Stock car racing is the perfect sport for heated rivalries to develop, and NASCAR has certainly had its fair share. Tempers are bound to flare in such an intense and high-stakes environment. Take a trip back in time and reminisce about NASCAR’s most thrilling rivalries that drove the sport to new heights.
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The top rivalry on our list tells the age-old story of a young up-and-coming star fighting against the old and grizzled champion. When Jeff Gordon burst onto the racing scene in the early 1990s, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was the undisputed king of NASCAR. The two all-time greats were bound to clash as Gordon made his way to the top.
Truth be told, there was no hostility on the racetrack. They respected each other as competitors. The real animosity took place off the track among NASCAR’s passionate fans. The 22-year-old Gordon was the biggest threat to Earnhardt’s crown, which forged a deep animosity between the two fanbases that would reshape the world of racing.
The drivers combined for eight Cup Series championships in the 90s, with each victory polarizing the fanbases even further. The rivalry drew interest from casual sports fans and spearheaded NASCAR’s rise in popularity. Dale vs. Jeff was the main attraction of NASCAR’s golden age, which is why it ranks number one.
The fanbases finally reconciled after Earnhardt’s tragic death in 2001, and Gordon said he was happy to see the feud end. “When his passing happened, it’s amazing how many of his fans said, ‘Listen, I’ve never pulled for you before, we missed out, and I know you respected him and for the first time I’m able to be an Earnhardt fan and pull for you.’”
Just as Earnhardt vs. Gordon defined the 1990s, Petty vs. Pearson defined the 60s and 70s. They finished first and second place 63 times when they raced together, with Pearson winning 33 races and Petty winning 30. However, Petty had 95 more total wins than Pearson, so both drivers have a solid argument for “winning” the rivalry.
There were numerous heated moments on the track, such as Pearson’s stunt on the last lap of the 1973 Firecracker 500. He deliberately slowed down while in first place, taunting Petty behind him before pulling away to secure the victory.
However, their constant clashes created a deep respect for each other rather than hatred. The two became good friends later in their careers. As Petty described after Pearson’s death in 2018, “It wasn’t a rivalry, but more mutual respect. David is a Hall of Famer who made me better. He pushed me just as I pushed him on the track. We both became better for it.”
Jimmie Johnson was the hero of NASCAR for much of the 2010s, and every hero needs a villain. Kevin Harvick stepped into that role when he arrived at NASCAR in 2014, culminating with a physical altercation in 2015. Harvick took exception to Johnson’s brazen driving style after Johnson bumped fenders with him and nearly caused a crash.
Johnson and Harvick were natural rivals. Harvick was a star from other racing promotions while Johnson was NASCAR’s golden boy. They would finish first and second 14 times, with Johnson getting the upper hand in 12 of them. Harvick won one Cup Series, while Johnson won seven. This lopsided result didn’t make their relationship any better.
However, Harvick has shown great maturity in the face of defeat, saying that Johnson doesn’t get enough credit for his racing success. They might not like each other, but they seem to have reconciled their differences on the track.
Waltrip vs. Wallace is another classic case of the established veteran clashing with the young superstar. Waltrip was already a three-time Cup Series champion when Wallace burst onto the scene. Fans embraced Wallace’s bold personality and driving style, which meant that Waltrip became NASCAR’s main bad guy.
However, this dynamic completely flipped when Wallace spun Waltrip’s car on the final lap of the 1989 All-Star Race to steal the win and $200,000 in prize money. Fans booed Wallace in the victory lane and Waltrip added, “I hope he chokes on that $200,000.” Waltrip became the good guy once again and was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver in 1989 and 1990.
The rivalry between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski has the most violent on-track history out of all of all the rivalries on this list. These drivers just couldn’t get out of each other’s way. They constantly found themselves bumping cars during high-stakes races, including 2009 Talladega, 2009 Memphis and 2010 Atlanta.
Some of those bumps resulted in crashes, and all of them resulted in heated exchanges after the race. The worst incident happened at the 2010 Gateway when Edwards deliberately caused Keselowski to crash and bragged about it afterward. NASCAR put both drivers on probation to quell the feud and keep the rest of the field safe.
Richard Petty makes another appearance on this list, this time for his rivalry with Bobby Allison. Bobby was one of the famous Allison brothers and said he derived great enjoyment from interfering with Petty’s success. While Petty was the king of NASCAR in the 1970s, Allison was a constant thorn in his side.
Petty’s 200 wins are still a NASCAR record, while Allison’s 84 wins are fourth in the sport’s history. These numbers show the discrepancy between the two drivers and why Allison was so excited to defeat Petty. He was the only driver besides David Pearson who could beat Petty on any given day, and their conflicting personalities made the rivalry even better.
Bobby and Donnie Allison were known troublemakers back in the 1960s and 70s, and their rivalry with Cale Yarborough is a prime example. The feud began when Yarborough, Donnie and Bobby crashed multiple times at the 1979 Daytona 500, one of the most iconic races in NASCAR history that helped put stock car racing on the map.
Immediately after the final lap, Yarborough picked a fight with the brothers right alongside the track. Bobby and Yarborough were both bleeding from the nose and mouth by the end of the brawl. It was the sport’s first story to make national headlines, and the two sides hated each other for the rest of their careers. There have never been any apologies.
Nobody wants to see NASCAR drivers get hurt, but fans can’t deny that heated rivalries and violent collisions make racing better. Without these feuds, NASCAR might still be an obscure stock car racing league only known in the United States. These rivalries boosted NASCAR’s popularity and made fans more emotionally invested in the sport than ever before.
The rivalry between Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon is considered the greatest, but not because they hated each other. These drivers are the two biggest names in NASCAR even today, and their fierce competition brought the sport to peak popularity in the 1990s.
Dale Earnhardt crashed into the wall and died instantly on the final lap of the Daytona 500 on February 18, 2001. His death marked the end of NASCAR’s greatest era and led to many safety improvements for NASCAR vehicles and track conditions.
The most recent noteworthy NASCAR rivalry has been Jimmie Johnson vs. Kevin Harvick. Johnson firmly has the upper hand in head-to-head victories, but their physical altercations after the race make this rivalry memorable.
Yes, there have been many fights on NASCAR race tracks over the years. The first and most famous fight took place at the 1979 Daytona 500 between Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison and Bobby Allison. Most fights happen after one driver blames another for causing a crash, just like a classic case of road rage.
NASCAR’s rivalries have given the sport some much-needed storylines to draw the interest of casual fans. People who don’t know much about stock car racing can still enjoy the sport by following the rivalries, taking sides and watching those rivalries play out on the track.
With an extensive background in automotive journalism, Jack Shaw brings a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm to the table. As a contributing writer for Offroad Xtreme, Ford Muscle, Engine Labs and other leading publications, his articles provide readers with expert insights and captivating stories from the world of racing.