Rivalries are like a witch’s brew; they tend to be volatile at first, then simmer for a while before coming to a full boil. Some of them then cool off into a harmless mixtures, while others never seem to end. In any case, they’re colorful, exciting, and sometimes a little disconcerting… but definitely attention-grabbing!
The initial mix of one such rivalry happened at Martinsville one year ago, when Clint Bowyer got into Jeff Gordon in the closing laps, putting Gordon in the wall. The DuPont Chevy driver had badly wanted the win that day; it would have been Rick Hendrick’s 200th as a car owner, and Gordon, who is third on the all-time Sprint Cup wins list, owns the lion’s share of those. He wanted that milestone as much as he ever wanted a win, in the backyard of a track where tragedy struck his organization in the form of a deadly plane crash eight years ago. But Bowyer, back then denied him the chance to win it. Ultimately, that win would go not to Gordon, but to Jimmie Johnson, his one-time protégé.
It was at this race, one year ago where the once-friendly Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon turned into foes. Will that wound ever heal?
The angst didn’t come to a head right away. Instead, it simmered through the summer, when the two rubbed fenders a few times, but it didn’t come to a head until Phoenix last fall, when Bowyer got into Gordon, who retaliated by putting Bowyer decisively in the wall, ending any shred of title hope he had left and igniting a pit road brawl. Bowyer said over the winter that he hasn’t forgiven or forgotten, and Gordon echoed that on Friday, saying “All he had to do (at Martinsville last spring) was wait until we got off Turn 2 and he probably would have driven by all of us down the back straightaway. So, certainly, that’s not forgotten.”
Both Bowyer and Gordon have bided their time in the past, and they have on this one as well, if indeed it isn’t over. However, Gordon joked on Friday that, “It’s nice to know some of the attention is off of us. We’ll just go race hard like we have to every other weekend.” Certainly, one Joey Logano, along with Denny Hamlin have been grabbing their share of the spotlight as of late – with a side of Tony Stewart.
Still, will Bowyer-Gordon ignite again this weekend? Don’t look for them to go out of their way to wreck one another, but if they’re racing in close quarters… well, anything could happen.
Rivalries are almost a double-edged sword in some ways. They’re great for the sport, because they get fans interested (though if someone gets hurt as a result, like Denny Hamlin did last weekend, that’s not good for anybody). They also add to the excitement; it’s that type of race hard and don’t give an inch competition fans want to see. But the flip side, the one that many don’t think about, is that a lot of people at the race shops work hard on those cars and will have to work even harder to fix them. They also put sponsors between a rock and a hard place in that while a rivalry might not be bad PR (any attention is good attention), they can take the sponsor out of Victory Lane any given week.
Time does heal all wounds… it’s rare for a feud to last more than a season or so. After a while, drivers realize that spending their time worrying about one other racer is counterproductive, and they go back to simply competing. Though they may always race that guy harder than normal, they have to look at the bigger picture.
Right now, Logano is the driver who finds himself at the center of the storm. An injured Hamlin is mad at him for the last-lap wreck at Fontana. Stewart is gunning for him after Logano threw a block that cost Smoke a lot of positions at the end of the race. Hamlin is out for awhile with a broken back, but Stewart isn’t, so there could be some fireworks on Sunday. Martinsville brings that out in drivers who don’t have a previous history. And guess what? That rivalry could spark others if someone else gets caught in the crossfire.
Or, will a totally new spat emerge? It’s certainly possible on a track where best friends end up angry after a hard day of racing. All it can take is one badly-timed move and a new brew starts to bubble.
The fact of the matter is, NASCAR needs rivalries. They need the good guys and the bad. Fans like that, and they like to defend their own favorites in a conflict. There is and should be a balance — sometimes, it’s better for all involved for one driver to own up to a mistake and move on. A lot of people will respect him for that. But people also respect a driver who will stand up for himself if he’s getting pushed around.
Who will be feuding at the end of 500 laps on Sunday? And how long will the ill will bubble away until it explodes? Only time will tell… and the anticipation is part of the game. While most NASCAR rivalries will die a natural death, the nature of the beast is that a new one will take their place. Boys, have at it indeed.
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