For a fleeting lap or two Sunday, the decibel level at Phoenix International Raceway rose considerably as Dale Earnhardt Jr. bore down on Jeff Gordon.
Only a few laps remained in the Checker Auto Parts 500, and two of NASCAR’s superstars were battling for the lead.
It’s what the fans wanted to see — Earnhardt, adored and admired by millions, vs. Gordon, loved and hated by millions. A rivalry that hasn’t materialized much on the track, just in the grandstands.
Junior’s No. 8 rode inches from the back bumper of Gordon’s No. 24 on a restart on Lap 303. They raced door to door for most of the mile, then Earnhardt, who had the better handling car, pulled ahead at the start of Lap 304, the duel essentially over.
Earnhardt went on to win his second straight race at PIR, Gordon settled for third. Both are in the hunt for the Nextel Cup championship. But the short duel stirred talk of what has been lacking in the sport for several years — an intense rivalry among its top stars.
"I would love to come to every racetrack and have it come down to a five-lap shootout between me and Jeff," Earnhardt said.
The NBA had its Celtics-Lakers, baseball has its Yankees-Red Sox, tennis had its Connors-McEnroe to name a few.
Racing often had its share of rivalries and duels for championships during the 1970s and ’80s. Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough. Add Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip to the mix. A few years later, everybody seemed to be gunning for Dale Earnhardt Sr.
"What you’re asking for was easy to find 15 or 20 years ago in the sport," Earnhardt Jr. said about NASCAR rivalries. "But with the diversity you have amongst the whole field now, it’s anybody’s race every week. You can’t really manifest a rivalry with anybody."
The Gordon-Earnhardt rivalry is a natural. Jeff drinks Pepsi, Dale drinks Coke. Jeff is a clean-cut, articulate guy with roots from the Midwest and California. Dale wears faded jeans, likes to cuss and is from the South. That makes it easy for the fans to pick and choose a side, like voting for a Republican or Democrat.
Earnhardt first met Gordon 10 years ago at a track in North Wilkesboro, N.C., and both figured they would be racing each other some day.
And Earnhardt finds it an honor to race against the four-time Cup champion. "I don’t think there’s anybody else I’d rather beat," Earnhardt said.
PIT STOPS: PIR officials say they will soon have a title sponsor on board for the new NASCAR Nextel Cup night race at the track April 23. . . . PIR’s $5 million lighting system is expected to be completed in late February or early March. Crews have yet to install lighting above the frontstretch grandstands and also need to insert reflecting mirrors into the entire lighting system.