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'Rivalries In The Era Of Parity'
Late Summer 2006


When longtime NASCAR fans think about rivalries they often consider Richard Petty vs. David Pearson, Bobby Allison vs. Darrell Waltrip, or Dale Earnhardt vs. Rusty Wallace. In today's era of NASCAR, a rivalry is more difficult to start, and increasingly more difficult to maintain. For better or worse, the era of parity and increased competition has pushed traditional rivalries to the brink of extinction. As a result, when two drivers have an on-track incident or two, the media begins to built it up as a rivalry. In essence, it is. But in the historical sense, rivalries are simply from a bygone era.

The level of competition in NASCAR is as high as it has ever more. More drivers have the opportunity to run up front on any given weekend. In the 1970's and 1980's there were about 10-15 drivers on the track who had a legitimate chance to win a race. These days there are upwards of 25-30 drivers who could pull off a victory depending on the track. The rivalry between Petty and Pearson developed because both of them ran up front week after week. Same for Allison and Waltrip, as well as Earnhardt and Wallace. But these days, consistency is elusive for even the best teams. Jeff Gordon might be up front on a road course, and then running mid-pack on a flat oval. Following his incident with Matt Kenseth at the end of the Chicago race, the media played up the Gordon/Kenseth rivalry. But the following week at Loudon, neither of them were a serious contender for the victory. Both finished mid-pack after struggling with handling issues. The rivalry would have to wait.

Another wrench into the traditional rivalry are the sponsors. There is simply more money in NASCAR right now than there was in the 1970's and 1980's... combined. Drivers know they have a lot to lose if they step out of line. Image truly is everything, and no driver will risk a multi-million dollar sponsorship deal just to one-up someone when the opportunity presents itself. The combination of sponsors as well a much more Orwellian governing body has taken the legs out of several potential rivalries over the years.

In the 1979 Daytona 500, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison brawled on the backstretch immediately following the race. The event was captured live on CBS and the viewing audience got a taste of southern stock car racing. Did NASCAR issue any fines or suspensions following the brawl? Of course not. Imagine that same incident occurring today. Do you think NASCAR would sit idle and let it go?

The closest thing NASCAR has to a rivalry these days is Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. They've combined to win 6 Cup championships in the last 11 years. They've had on-track incidents where both have refused to concede an inch to each other, and have also had off-track shouting matches. But the rivalry lacks legs-- it doesn't hold up from week to week. Stewart might be dominating at Dover while Gordon struggles to stay on the lead lap. Or Gordon might be dominating at Daytona while Stewart tries to work the draft from mid-pack. The increase in the competition level shifted the rivalry from a top story to the back burner. While the potential exists for the Stewart/Gordon rivalry to pick up steam at any moment, race fans rarely go into an event expecting to see a 1-2 finish from the pair.

What does this mean for the future of rivalries? It means the definition has changed. It's not a week-to-week occurrence anymore; rather a special occasion for the drivers, teams, and fans. With sponsors and the governing body playing more of a role than ever, the special occasions are usually limited in scope. The regular weekly rivalry the sport had previously known is gone. Parity has reigned supreme, for better or worse.


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