Bill France effectively outlawed NASCAR rivalries two decades ago.
NASCAR's founder invited feuding drivers Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine out for dinner and gave them a lecture for dessert. The sport had become too big for the bumping and banging of the old days, France said.
Rivalries have gradually disappeared since. Sponsors frown on them. NASCAR hands down fines over them. Technology and the dangerous speeds it produces discourages them.
But fans love rivalries, driver Matt Kenseth said. He and Jeff Gordon are giving them one, with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ready to join the fray after a scrape last weekend at Pocono.
"I think any time there's any kind of conflict - in which I don't like being in any of it - but any other conflict when other people are in it, I think it's interesting to watch," Kenseth said.
The Kenseth-Gordon feud broke out earlier this year when Kenseth spun out Gordon in the final laps of a race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Gordon reacted after the race by shoving Kenseth on pit road.
Flaring tempers are nothing new on the racing circuit. Drivers do and say things on race day that they regret and apologize for once the adrenaline wears off. Rarely do they carry personal grudges over from week to week.
Recent NASCAR rivalries have been fleeting. A 2003 spat between Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer drew passing interest. But Spencer's anonymity - he hasn't won a Cup race since 1994 - failed to hold fans' attention.
Jimmie Johnson's driving early last season upset many of his peers, including fellow star Dale Earnhardt Jr., who at one point said Johnson drove "like an idiot." Yet the disagreement never escalated.
The Kenseth-Gordon feud has. Gordon didn't hesitate to avenge the Bristol incident, spinning Kenseth out of the way in the closing laps of a race at Chicagoland Speedway earlier this month. Kenseth said the contact was unnecessary - Gordon's car was faster and would have passed him in the next corner.
The two met the following week, with Gordon offering what Kenseth characterized as an insincere apology. Neither of them wants a feud - both are former champions vying for spots in the Chase for the Championship - but both have had enough of being the nice guy.
"I think that we are setting examples by going out there and showing everybody that we're going to race everybody really aggressive and hard," Gordon said when asked if, as a veteran, he felt a responsibility to set an example for the other drivers. "When something like that happens, it's how we move on from it from that point forward. Hopefully, the example that we set is a good one."
The rivalry's escalation might be better for the sport. Television ratings are down approximately five percent nationally this season after skyrocketing in recent years.
"Rivalries really add to it. They add a lot," said Benny Parsons, the 1973 Cup champion . "It's not good for the people involved, but it's good for everybody else."
Reach Adam Van Brimmer at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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