There were NASCAR Cup Series drivers who feared Dale Earnhardt Sr. and drivers who respected him. Few in the business counted the racing legend among their friends. The man nicknamed “The Intimidator” was more interested in winning races than winning friends.
Rusty Wallace was one of the rare drivers who got along well with Earnhardt, but that friendship nearly went out the window when their plot to gang up on young star Jeff Gordon went sideways.
Jeff Gordon was rattling NASCAR’s old guard
Aside from Alan Kulwicki (1992), the list of recent NASCAR Cup Series annual champions before the 1995 season consisted of the sport’s old guard. Dale Earnhardt Sr. triumphed six times in nine years, and Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace, and Darrell Waltrip were others on that list.
However, 1995 marked the emergence of Jeff Gordon. Just 23 years old when the season began, Gordon was blossoming at Hendrick Motorsports. After scoring two victories in 1994, Gordon tore it up the next year by winning seven races on the way to the first of his four points crowns.
When he arrived in Tennessee for the season’s second Bristol race, he already owned five wins and had finished in the top 10 in his last eight races. Earnhardt and Wallace decided to slow his momentum.
That proved to be a mistake that nearly ended their friendship.
Dale Earnhardt was jealous of Jeff Gordon’s rapid rise
Dale Earnhardt romped to the NASCAR Cup Series championship in 1994, with Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace rounding out the top three. Midway through the 1995 schedule, however, Jeff Gordon was on his way to the championship in just his third full-time season.
“Earnhardt and myself back then were having a problem with Gordon,” Wallace said. “He was one of our main competitors. He was a young kid coming in. It was basically (Earnhardt) and I both jealous and mad that Gordon was sucking up all the attention and winning all the races.”
Wallace said Earnhardt approached him before the August race at Bristol and suggested they “get this kid out of the way.” Wallace implied they intended to knock Gordon into the wall and out of the race.
“So, we take off and get about four or five laps into the race, “Wallace recalled, “and I come off turn 4 and get just a little bit loose. Earnhardt is right on my back and smashed my back. I spin out and hit the wall and (now) I’ve gotta run around all 500 miles with that car beat to pieces.”
Terry Labonte won the Goody’s 500, Earnhardt was second, and Gordon finished sixth. Wallace finished but completed just 454 miles and placed 21st. He described himself as “mad as a hornet” the entire night.
Afterward, Wallace hurled a water bottle at Earnhardt to get his attention amidst all the noise and commotion in the pits. The bottle hit Earnhardt squarely in the head.
“Well, he just shot up and looked up and saw me. And then it was game on.”Rusty Wallace
Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace clear the air
Furious over being hit by the water bottle, Dale Earnhardt Sr. grabbed Rusty Wallace, recalled Don Hawk, president of Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the time.
“(Earnhardt) said, ‘You know what, we can fight here and make a scene. Or you can come to the farm on Monday, and we’ll either fight it out or talk it out like two men.’”
Sure enough, Wallace showed up for the summit. Hawk was also there and didn’t know what to make of it when the two got into Earnhardt’s truck and disappeared for well over three hours.
“They came back in, they ate lunch, they disappeared again,” Hawk said. “They came in, and Dale said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, I actually have Miller beer for you.’ And they drank a beer in the shop over a picnic table. (DEI crew chief) Tony Eury Sr. was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Earnhardt is having a beer with Rusty Wallace.’”
Hawk never found out what was said, but he took an educated guess.
“I’m sure they yelled at each other a little bit, talked at each other a little bit, but they came out of there with a respect,” he said, according to NBC Sports.