Another Chapter For Gordon And Wallace

(August 26, 2002)- - Rusty Wallace had to have expected it. Leading Jeff Gordon in the closing laps of the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, he had to have known the bump pass was coming. Gordon's bump pass allowed the DuPont Chevrolet to take the lead in turn three with three laps remaining. Gordon went on to the victory while Wallace was left with a runner-up finish.

"He got bottled up in some traffic and if I could get to him I could make a move," Gordon said. "He got real loose and shut the door on me. Once he shut the door on me I said 'alright, fair game right there.' I got into him a little bit, he got loose and I hope he'll understand tomorrow."

Though Wallace saw things a bit differently from his vantage point. Could Gordon have made the winning move without laying his front bumper to Wallace's Ford? "No, not a chance in hell," Wallace said after the race. "I don't think there was any way. We only had two laps to go. I was able to pull him pretty good, but when I saw the 25 car up there, I was hoping like hell he would move up high and just let us go, but he just kept racing on the bottom."

Gordon claimed Wallace slammed the door on him when he tried to make the winning pass a lap earlier. "Oh, I don't know," Wallace said. "We'll talk about that later, I guess. I mean, I was in front I thought, so I don't know how in the hell I slammed the door, but that's racing." The battle at Bristol in August 2002 was just the latest in a long rivalry between NASCAR's two active winningest drivers.

One needs only to look back to Jeff Gordon's first victory to see where the rivalry began. Wallace won ten races in 1993 and would win eight races in 1994. In the Coca-Cola 600, Wallace had the lead of the race as the leaders came in for green flag pit stops for the final time. Wallace, Geoff Bodine, and Ernie Irvan's teams all changed four times. However, Jeff Gordon's crew chief Ray Evernham called for two tires. The change propelled Gordon into the lead and he went on to claim his first victory. "The Kid" had arrived.

Over the next few years Gordon and Wallace would battle on the track, racing each other hard but clean. Wallace came to Bristol Motor Speedway in the spring of 1997 on a mission. He won the night race at Bristol the previous year and won at Richmond a few months earlier. Though Gordon had won the past two spring races at Bristol, Wallace was still the reigning king of NASCAR's short tracks. Wallace won the pole position and led 229 of the 500 laps and had the lead of the race as the laps wound down. Gordon was running second and was making headway toward catching Wallace in the final ten laps. On the final lap, Wallace slowed briefly on the backstretch to pass the lapped car of Jimmy Spencer. Gordon closed up to Wallace's rear bumper and used a bump pass in turn three to take the lead. On ESPN, announcer Benny Parsons nearly jumped out of his chair screaming, "Here comes Jeff Gordon!"

Wallace admitted that lapped traffic played a role, but it took a bump pass to beat him at one of his favorite tracks. The next year at Richmond, Wallace and Gordon had another incident. Earlier Wallace was eligible for the No Bull million dollar bonus at Charlotte if he won the Coca-Cola 600. Gordon made the winning pass with just a handful of laps remaining. At Richmond, Wallace had the lead of the race in the late stages. Gordon pulled up on the outside entering turn one. Wallace, running the inside lane, appeared to lose control for an instant and made contact with the left rear quarterpanel of Gordon's car. The contact sent Gordon spinning sideways resulting in a heavy impact with the turn two wall. "Somebody can't stand to get passed," Gordon said fuming as he walked from his wrecked car.

"Hell of a race, don't you think? A little racing accident. No controversy," Wallace said. While the 1989 Winston Cup champion downplayed the incident, his peers felt it was payback from an earlier time. "I'm sure (Bristol) was on Rusty's mind. Maybe that was a little payback," Ernie Irvan said. The Bristol incident occurred more than a year before the Richmond debacle, but drivers don't forget. "I saw Rusty get loose, and he got the car corrected, then it started to go again," Dale Jarrett said. "He saw that he was going to have to use a lot of racetrack and the person who was there (on the outside) was someone who had used him in another incident (Bristol)."

One year later at Loudon, New Hampshire the next chapter was written. Gordon was running on the inside of Wallace entering turn three. Gordon appeared to push up the track into Wallace's line. The resulting contact sent Wallace spinning backward into the wall. Hard contact and a DNF was the end result. Though that race will likely be remembered for another altercation involving Gordon. On the final lap he had a run on Dale Jarrett for position. Jarrett blocked the move. An agitated Gordon bumped the rear of Jarrett's Ford three times in the middle of turns three and four to take the third position. A verbal altercation between Gordon and Jarrett followed the race. The Wallace incident was put on the back burner.

At Talladega in April 1999, Gordon and Wallace met up again. But this time it was sheer racing luck. After Mike Skinner blocked Tony Stewart to the infield grass, Skinner spun out. Viewing the melee in front of him, Gordon got on the brakes and lost control. He spun directly toward the right and would have impacted the backstretch wall head-on. The Miller Lite Ford slammed directly into the right side of Gordon's Chevrolet at 190 miles per hour. The contact changed Gordon's impact point with the wall from head-on to a left side impact. Nothing intentional-- just two old rivals meeting up at 190 miles per hour.

In the 2001 season, they renewed their rivalry at Richmond. As Tony Stewart pulled away on the final restart to win, Wallace and Gordon battled for the runner-up position. Gordon and Wallace had a door slamming duel in the middle of turns one and two for the second position. On the cool down lap after the race, a visibly upset Wallace pulled up alongside Gordon's Chevrolet and pointed at him. The two drivers had a verbal exchange on pit road in full view of TV cameras after exiting their cars.

As Gordon celebrates his victory at Bristol, he knows that it came at the expense of Wallace-- a driver he has clashed with on several occasions over the years. The question isn't whether payback will occur, only when it will occur.

That being said, Rusty Wallace is one of the fairest and cleanest drivers in Winston Cup racing. "Payback" might not be in the form of contact on the track. Perhaps a time will come when Gordon is fighting to get a lap back and Wallace or his teammate Ryan Newman is the leader. The opportunity will of course be denied.

The two drivers have combined for five Winston Cup titles and 113 career victories. They're both legends of NASCAR and intense rivals with each other. That's what the fans pay to watch. That's what stock car racing has always been about.

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