The on-track rivalry and off-track relationship between Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt is one of NASCAR’s greatest stories. It was a story that was explored in the documentary Unrivaled: Earnhardt vs. Gordon, where everyone from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Rick Hendrick to even Jeff Gordon himself (who executive produced the film) dished on the enduring impact of Earnhardt vs. Gordon on the sport of NASCAR. According to Dale Jr., the movie tells the story “just the way it was.”
For one of the more touching segments in the film, Gordon heads to the Dale Earnhardt Plaza in Kannapolis, North Carolina — Earnhardt’s hometown — to visit the memorial statue of Dale Earnhardt and pay tribute to his good friend and greatest rival. What makes the moment even more somber is that it came just ahead of the 2019 Daytona 500, the event where Dale Sr. tragically lost his life only 18 years prior.
If this doesn’t get you right in the feels, we don’t know what will.
“This is the Dale Earnhardt that a lot of us knew,” says Gordon, looking up at the Dale Earnhardt statue. “Cowboy boots, Wranglers. This is the size he was when he was in the race car.”
During their days going head-to-head, Gordon and Earnhardt couldn’t have been more different. Gordon was “Wonder Boy.” Earnhardt was “The Intimidator.” Gordon looked like a fresh-faced college kid who said “Gosh” a lot. Earnhardt looked like the kind of guy who mowed his lawn while smoking a Marlboro and drinking a Budweiser.
Even still, there was a mutual respect between the two drivers that transcended their differences. At the end of the day, they were both incredible NASCAR drivers. Two of the best to ever do it.
“As much as he messed with me, somehow on the inside I always thought that it was a sign of respect,” Gordon continues. “He would have not said anything at all if he didn’t care. I respected the heck out of this guy. I loved racing with him – Hated it at times, but overall my experience with Dale was incredible.”
When remembering Dale Earnhardt the driver, Jeff has never been one to sugarcoat things. In Unrivaled, he recalls Dale as being “a pain in the ass” to race against. Even still, the warmth was still there.
“He just was a tough, tough competitor,” Gordon said. “He just had this magical way of shoving you out of the way, knocking you sideways or maybe even wrecking you, and the next day or the next week, put his arm around you and say, ‘Hey kid.'”
When it was all said and done, Dale Earnhardt would win seven Winston Cup Series championships and 76 Cup Series races. Gordon himself would rack up four championships and 93 wins.
While Dale is sadly no longer with us, his legacy will live on. Through his family, his statue, and his countless contributions to the sport of NASCAR, and his rivalry with Jeff Gordon.
This post was originally published on March 20, 2020.