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How the ‘Kyle and Kyle Show’ Could Provide a Missing Piece for NASCAR

75 years into the making, where would NASCAR be without a classic rivalry?

Richard Petty vs. David Pearson, the Allison brothers vs. Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip vs. Rusty Wallace, and Herbie vs. Trip Murphy (OK, maybe a little too far) have captivated fans for decades.

Then there’s Earnhardt vs. Gordon.

This clash of legends was so monumental, they made a documentary about it. It was a split right down the middle of NASCAR country.

There were those who rooted for the ‘man in black,’ Dale Earnhardt, who wore the famous sunglasses with a black jacket and blue jeans as often as he could. Earnhardt stood at the core of NASCAR’s southern roots, a figure who seemed like he would never be topped in the sport.

On the other side of the aisle was Jeff Gordon, a flashy, eccentric youngster who came from a completely different background. While Earnhardt was synonymous with his black No. 3, Gordon broke out the flamboyant No. 24 adorned in rainbow colors. He brought a different persona and feasibly motivated Earnhardt more than ever.

Perhaps no rivalry has defined an era such as Earnhardt vs Gordon, as the two led NASCAR in their skyrocketing popularity. Off the track, they had massive respect for each other. On the track, fans watched eagerly to see who would gain the upper hand.

Many things evaporated when Earnhardt lost his life at Daytona International Speedway in 2001. With his passing, NASCAR’s most important rivalry was gone. And they have never gained it back.

Despite the dominance of drivers like Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, the colorful characters of Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch or Joey Logano, and the favorites such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott, NASCAR has lacked a true rivalry that will have the sport buzzing. The beauty of Earnhardt vs. Gordon is unique, but also needs to re-emerge.

In 2023, that opportunity has risen.

A decade ago, a virtually unknown Kyle Larson battled with NASCAR villain Kyle Busch for a NASCAR Xfinity Series win at Bristol Motor Speedway. When it seemed Busch had it won, Larson nearly edged him at the line.

Since then, the ‘Kyle and Kyle show’ has had flashes of brilliance. Auto Club Speedway in 2014, the 2018 Bristol spring race and Chicagoland Speedway in 2018 featured epic duels with both drivers … with Busch coming out on top in all of them.

Much has transpired since Busch retaliated against Larson’s slide job at Chicagoland for the win. After winning a second title in 2019, Busch endured three uncharacteristic seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing that concluded in a shock departure from a team he was the face of.

Larson also faced uncertainty after an iRacing incident in 2020 that left him fired, without sponsorship, and the threat of never sitting in a NASCAR series machine again.

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2-Headed Monster: Is Kyle Busch Still Viewed as NASCAR's Villain?

Now, it seems both have landed on their feet, and in a rejuvenated situation. Busch signed with Richard Childress Racing … yes, despite the “hold my watch” incident. Just two points races into the partnership, Busch found victory lane at Auto Club Speedway, his first asphalt win in over a year.

Larson landed with Hendrick Motorsports in 2021 and immediately went on a comeback tour. He won 10 races, including two occasions where he won three races in a row, and capped it off with his first Cup title.

See the theme? Despite two vastly different situations and two different backgrounds, both drivers have proved their talent, faced daunting uncertainty, and landed in spots that have made them two of the biggest threats in the garage on a weekly basis.

Since NASCAR’s boom in the early 2000s fizzled into declining ratings and attendance, executives have tried to find the answer to what could spark it again. It is hard to know if that will ever surface again, but one significant key has been missing: a season-long rivalry.

Just look at Lewis Hamilton against Max Verstappen for the 2021 Formula 1 championship, which played an important role in expanding F1’s popularity. For NASCAR, they had that with Earnhardt and Gordon for several years. But over time, a multi-year, head-to-head clash has not gained the same steam.

Parity is a good thing to an extent. It brings unpredictability and new opportunities for smaller teams. But a true, clear-cut face of the sport is just as, if not more, crucial. Right now, NASCAR’s face has a bit of an identity problem.

If you ask most people who the most talented driver in NASCAR is, Busch and Larson will be prevalent responses. 2023 could be the first genuine opportunity to see them clash for the top spot on a regular basis. Larson never had the consistency he needed with Chip Ganassi Racing. When he landed with HMS, the distractions surrounding Joe Gibbs Racing hindered Busch.

Now, they are both hungry, ready to remind people how good they are, and likely will run across each other several times this season.

Need an example? Look no further than this past weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway.

Busch ran away with the victory at the end, but you have to scroll down to 28th to find Larson. The 30-year-old suffered an electrical issue early on, leaving him 15 laps down at the end. But looks can be deceiving: while Busch logged the most fastest laps at 23, Larson was right behind him with 22.

Both have something to prove. Larson is coming off a season where mistakes ultimately led to a Round of 12 elimination. Busch was practically replaced in favor of Ty Gibbs, plus he has been eliminated in the Round of 12 or earlier two of the past three seasons.

See also
How the 'Kyle and Kyle Show' Could Provide a Missing Piece for NASCAR

Granted, Logano, Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and plenty of others will annually be in the mix. But the talent of both Busch and Larson comes far and few between.

Busch has been compared to Dale Earnhardt, and Larson has been compared to Jeff Gordon. The former drives for Richard Childress Racing (same as Earnhardt), while the latter drives for Hendrick Motorsports (same as Gordon). While not exact polar opposites like the legends were, their backgrounds contrast in multiple ways. And both have a healthy respect for each other.

NASCAR has been missing that old-fashioned rivalry, and promoting petty incidents that eventually diffuse has hurt more than it has helped.

The parity of the Next Gen car and increased competition in this era compared to the ’90s may limit how much back-and-forth we could see from the Kyles, and they may not split fan loyalty down the middle. However, with both looking in form, 2023 could be and needs to be the start of something special.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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