In early June 1998 at Richmond International Raceway, Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace were battling for the lead in the closing laps of the race. They rubbed down the backstretch with Gordon inching ahead when they came around to turn one. Wallace then hit the left rear of the DuPont Chevrolet sending Gordon into the turn two wall. After the incident, Gordon said, "I got ahead of him and he just drove in the side of me." Wallace only said, "I was racing hard, he was racing hard. It was just racing." To many, Wallace's on track action seemed deliberate. Nevertheless, no apology came from the Miller driver.
Some saw Rusty's action as 'payback' from a race at Bristol in April 1997. On the final lap, Jeff bumped Rusty in the rear heading into turn three which allowed him to take the lead and the win. However, there's a difference between that and what Rusty did at Richmond. At Richmond, it was not the last lap of the race. Ask any driver about the last lap of a short track race; it's all-out-war. The normally complacent Terry Labonte put a bumper to Dale Jarrett at Richmond with one lap to go. Bump passing on a short track is what NASCAR is all about. It was as much a part of racing in Curtis Turner's time as it is today. In addition, Rusty turned Jeff's car around at Richmond; Jeff didn't spin the Miller Ford last year. In Rusty's mind it was probably 'payback,' but in reality it was an entirely different situation.
After Richmond, the series headed to Michigan. In the final practice session at Michigan, Wallace "got loose" in turn one and hit the left rear of Dale Earnhardt's car sending 'The Intimidator' into the wall. It was looking like a turnaround weekend for Earnhardt. For the first time in 1998, he had qualified inside the top 25 on a non-restrictor plate track. Did Earnhardt feel the move was intentional? When he was spinning into the wall in practice he probably did. However, after rational thinking prevailed later in the day, he realized that Rusty just lost it. Nevertheless, after the incident Earnhardt was fuming and went searching for Wallace. When he found him, he grabbed Rusty by the front of his driving uniform and said, "I aint the 24. I will hit you back."
Wallace then quickly apologized to Earnhardt, his fans, and seemingly to anyone within earshot. Rumor has it that he even apologized to his brother Kenny for locking him in the trunk of the car when they were kids. But, at no point did he apologize to Jeff Gordon for his intentional-looking act of a week earlier. Which leaves me to wonder; is it that Wallace simply doesn't respect Gordon the same way that he respects Earnhardt?
Wallace knows that the majority of the race fans are "against" Jeff Gordon on any given race weekend. So, a tap here or there on the track couldn't hurt his popularity. Add on to the fact that it's been 43 races since Rusty visited victory lane and you can see the frustration in the Wallace camp. But, wrecking Earnhardt? Now he was floating with disaster. Gordon and Earnhardt fans dominate the grandstands most race weekends. The crowds could definitely shift against Rusty. So, he issued an apology shortly after wrecking 'The Intimidator.' Lest he infuriate Dale Earnhardt; the driver that made 'incidental contact' famous back in the 1980's.
Maybe Rusty doesn't have the same respect for Gordon that he has for Earnhardt. After all, he's been racing against Earnhardt a lot longer. Maybe Rusty feels Gordon hasn't worked as hard to get to the top as he has. Or maybe he's just envious of Jeff's two Winston Cup titles, 32 victories, and over $18 million in on track earnings before the age of 27.
Does it seem like there's a double standard here? No doubt. If you wreck the upstart, it's 'just racing.' But, if you wreck the legend, you have to admit it right away. It could just be that Jeff Gordon didn't grab Rusty by his driving uniform and shout at him like Earnhardt did. Would race fans erupt and cheer if Rusty were to crash in the next few races like they do when Gordon suffers misfortune? After wrecking the two biggest names in NASCAR, there should be little doubt about the fans reaction.
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