Dale Earnhardt Sr. knew each time he strapped in behind the wheel at a NASCAR race and zipped around the track at speeds around 200 miles an hour; it could be his last time. Despite those ever-present dangers, Earnhardt was fearless.
Jeff Gordon learned just how fearless Earnhardt was by a dangerous move The Intimidator would pull off right in the middle of a race. It was hilarious, cool, and downright frightening all at the same time.
Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon had a memorable rivalry
The rivalry between Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon was a natural one. The two drivers couldn’t have been more different. Earnhardt was a NASCAR blue blood in his mid-40s, born and raised in the heart of racing country. Gordon was the clean-cut 20-something California kid.
Earnhardt had fans who had followed his career and the sport for years. Gordon brought in an entirely new group of fans who weren’t located in NASCAR country but could relate to and cheer for the outsider.
Gordon’s fans had a lot to cheer for. From the 1993 season when Gordon made his Cup Series debut through the 2000 season, the newcomer outperformed the veteran. Gordon won 52 races and three of his four Cup Series championships during that time compared to Earnhardt’s 23 race victories and two championships.
Jeff Gordon respected Dale Earnhardt
While Dale Earnhardt might not have liked the outsider infringing on his territory, he couldn’t help but respect Jeff Gordon’s success on the track. For Gordon, the feeling was mutual.
“As much as me and him butted heads and had wrecks and had this rivalry, I still looked up to him so much and respected him. I enjoyed racing with him and learning from him on and off the track,” Gordon told Joe Buck on an episode of Undeniable with Joe Buck.
“I looked at him as this superhuman person that was almost untouchable. I saw him wreck, flip, the flip at Daytona when I won, and walk away every single time. One time, he had a pretty bad wreck and broke his sternum, and the next race, went to Watkins Glen, and he sat on the pole. He was tough.”
The dangerous in-car move that surprised Gordon every time he saw it
While Dale Earnhardt was undoubtedly tough, Jeff Gordon said Earnhardt’s old-school-style and not always keeping up with the latest safety features sometimes worried Gordon.
“Safety-wise he had a certain way and comfort about the way he wanted to be in the car. The way the seatbelts were mounted, the way the seat was shaped, the helmet. He always wore that open-faced helmet. I always worried about him from that sense because the younger kind of new way was this wraparound cocoon seat, headrest, seven-point, six-point harnesses, really taking care of your head and how it moves.”
Gordon then described to Buck one of Earnhardt’s patented moves that he saw more than a few times happen during the middle of the race traveling at speeds nearing 200 miles per hour. And it left him shocked each time.
“I’d see him sometimes, he’d have his arm like this, one-hand,” Gordon said while imitating Earnhardt, sticking his right arm out like it’s resting on the back of a passenger-side seat. Joe Buck stopped him and questioned if he was being serious.
“I swear, I’m not joking. I’ll never forget. In a race. I’m like (gripping the wheel really hard), and I look over and he’s like (holds up his one hand and waves a peace sign at him). No joke,” Gordon said.
Dale Earnhardt was a NASCAR legend who earned the respect from all of his fellow drivers for what he accomplished on the track. He earned that same level of respect from Jeff Gordon, and then some for a move that was quintessential Earnhardt.