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Curator's Corner / Hall of Famers

Earnhardt, Gordon 1-2s

Between Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, who had the upper hand in 1-2 finishes?

Rivalries have fueled NASCAR throughout its history, whether it was Hall of Famers Red Byron (Class of 2018) and Tim Flock (Class of 2014) battling on the hard-packed white sands of Daytona Beach in 1949 or Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin trading paint on a Virginia short track today.

The decade of the 1990s saw the rise of one of NASCAR’s greatest rivalries ever: Dale Earnhardt (Class of 2010) vs. Jeff Gordon (Class of 2019). This rivalry had all the essential elements necessary to ignite fan passions. Earnhardt, the rough and tumble racer from a North Carolina mill town, and Gordon, the polished, camera-friendly Northern California speedster, were as different as night and day, personality wise.

Earnhardt was known as The Intimidator and The Man in Black, while Gordon was referred to – sometimes derisively – as “Wonder Boy,” the leader of the Rainbow Warriors. Their vast personality differences made it easy for fans to choose a side. In the ’90s, you were a Gordon fan or an Earnhardt fan, but never both.

Each driver’s fan base loathed the other, which only stoked the flames. As we say in the south, in racing as in wrestling, hate is great.

To make a truly epic rivalry, both parties have to have star power off the track and a whole lot of victories on it. Gordon and Earnhardt had ample amounts of both. Unquestionably, they were two of the very best wheelmen to ever strap into the seat of a stock car. Earnhardt won seven NASCAR Cup Series championships to Gordon’s four, but Gordon won 93 races to Earnhardt’s 76. Earnhardt is tied with Richard Petty (Class of 2010) and Jimmie Johnson (Class of 2024) for most titles, while Gordon ranks third all-time in race wins behind only Petty and David Pearson (Class of 2011).

During the 1990s, Dale Earnhardt (right) and Jeff Gordon combined to win seven of the 10 NASCAR Cup Series championships earned that decade. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting: From the last race of 1992 through the first race of 2001, Earnhardt and Gordon competed in 258 races together, a little over eight full seasons total. Surprisingly, perhaps, as great as these two were, they only finished 1-2 seven times. Here are all seven 1-2 finishes Earnhardt and Gordon posted, in chronological order.

Early on, Dale Earnhardt (left) usually got the best of Jeff Gordon. That dominance would prove to be finite. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

1993 Coca-Cola 600, Charlotte Motor Speedway

Already well on his way to a sixth of a record-tying seventh NASCAR Cup Series championships, Earnhardt scored a dominating victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway to earn his second victory of the season. Earnhardt had the black No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet out front for 152 of 400 laps, taking the checkered flag 3.73 seconds ahead of Gordon, the 21-year-old rookie in the rainbow-hued No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Earnhardt, not a man prone to tossing around platitudes, was impressed with what he saw in the rookie Gordon. “I’m glad he (Gordon) didn’t catch me because he was tough,” Earnhardt said. “He ran real good. He was good here in Charlotte, and that shows a lot. He’s a tough little race driver. He’s going to be hard to handle.” Prophetic words from one driver who already earned multiple championships to another who would soon follow in his footsteps.

For Gordon, the second-place result was his best finish to date in the 12 Cup Series starts he had made. And after the race the Northern California native was thrilled with his result in NASCAR’s longest race. “Any time you can run second to Dale Earnhardt, that’s great,” said Gordon. “We’re real, real happy.”

Five of Dale Earnhardt’s 76 career race victories came at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

1995 First Union 400, North Wilkesboro Speedway

Believe it or not, the only other time a Cup Series race ended with Earnhardt in Victory Lane and Gordon in second place came early in the 1995 season, when Earnhardt took the checkered flag a whopping 13.48 seconds ahead of his rival in the First Union 400 at the venerable North Wilkesboro Speedway. Earnhardt was the defending series champion but by the time NASCAR rolled into the historic 0.625-mile North Carolina short track, Gordon had already won three times in the first six races of the year and was about to go on a championship roll of his own.

Earnhardt had been perturbed by Gordon’s early season success and it showed in his post-race comments. Asked how it felt to finally best his young rival, Earnhardt responded in peak form. “Amazing! We finally beat Wonder Boy!” Earnhart snarked. “Really, he’s just another driver … There’s no problem.”

“I’m sorry we couldn’t make a run out of it with Earnhardt, but he had us covered,” said Gordon. “My car was really good for 30 laps, then it started getting loose.”

From 1995-98, Jeff Gordon set a record with four consecutive Southern 500 race victories. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

1995 Southern 500, Darlington Raceway

In what would later become his first of four championship seasons, Gordon would post hist initial 1-2 finish over Earnhardt in one of NASCAR’s majors, the Southern 500 at historic Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. It was not an easy victory, as Gordon spun in Turn 1, triggering a four-car accident that brought out a caution on Lap 137 of the 367-lap race. But he kept his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet off the wall, which saved his race. “When I came into the first turn, the rear end just came around on me,” Gordon said. “I thought I must have cut a tire. Then I saw all those guys wrecking behind me and I thought, ‘Oh, man.’” Gordon was able to regroup and took the checkered flag 0.66 seconds ahead of Earnhardt and the black No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.

Not surprisingly, Earnhardt was not at all happy in coming up short in his attempt to win a 10th race at Darlington. “Second again … that sucks,” he said. “Second sucks. … I was pushing to win. I’ve won nine of these suckers down here.”

The last points race at historic North Wilkesboro Speedway was won by the Dupont-sponsored No. 24 Chevrolet driven by Jeff Gordon. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

1996 Tyson Holly Farms 400, North Wilkesboro Speedway

Located deep in the heart of North Carolina moonshine country, North Wilkesboro Speedway had been on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule every year since its inaugural season of 1949, when it was known as the Strictly Stock Division. Although North Wilkesboro had history on its side, NASCAR was moving its race dates to larger markets and by the time of the 1996 Tyson Holly Farms 400, it had already been announced that the North Carolina track would no longer be on the schedule in 1997 and beyond. “It’s important to win this last race,” Gordon said. “You look at Junior Johnson, (Class of 2010) all those other guys who did so many great things here and then you realize you will never see another Winston Cup race here as far as you know.”

Gordon dominated the final North Wilkesboro race leading 207 of 400 laps, although Earnhardt put up quite a fight as the two swapped the lead five times in the final 142 laps. Earnhardt tried his best to run Gordon down but burned his tires off in the process. “The track is worn out and it eats these Goodyears up,” Earnhardt said after the race. “… Managing the tires is what it’s all about. You’ve got to be there when you’ve got to be there and we weren’t there at the end.” The tire woes allowed Gordon to take the final checkered flag in a North Wilkesboro points race 1.73 seconds ahead of Earnhardt.

The party was on in Victory Lane for driver Jeff Gordon (left) and crew chief Ray Evernham after Gordon scored his second Daytona 500 victory. Photo courtesy of Jamie Squire/Allsport

1999 Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway

The 1997 and ’98 seasons were lean for Earnhardt, who won just once in those two years, while Gordon had his best results, winning 23 races over that period. But at no point in either season did the two legends finish 1-2. That would have to wait until the 1999 Daytona 500, where Gordon crossed the start-finish line 0.128 seconds ahead of Earnhardt, the defending race winner. With 10 laps to go, Gordon made a daring move, diving to the apron under leader Rusty Wallace (Class of 2013) to take over first place, nearly running into the damaged car of Ricky Rudd in the process. In the closing laps, Earnhardt and Gordon waged a furious battle, and on the final lap Earnhardt attempted to go low on the backstretch, them high, then back low again. But Gordon held his ground, becoming the first driver to win the race from the pole since Bill Elliott (Class of 2015) in 1997.

“This is a dream come true for me,” Gordon said after winning the Great American Race for the second time. “To race Dale Earnhardt all the way down to the line for the Daytona 500. It does not get any better than that.”

After starting on the inside of the third row, Jeff Gordon drove to victory at Martinsville Speedway in the fall 1999 race. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

1999 NAPA Auto Care 500, Martinsville Speedway

On paper, the NAPA Auto Care 500 wasn’t one of the biggest races on the NASCAR schedule, but it certainly came with one of the year’s most sensational storylines. Ray Evernham (Class of 2018), crew chief for Gordon’s first three NASCAR Cup Series championships, had just resigned from Hendrick Motorsports to take the helm of Dodge’s return to NASCAR. The Martinsville race marked the first start atop the Rainbow Warriors pit box for Gordon’s new crew chief, Brian Whitesell, a Virginia Tech-educated engineer. Gordon qualified fifth and only led 29 laps, but he held off Earnhardt in the closing laps to win by 0.198 seconds. “It was emotional,” Gordon said of his victory. “You wish Ray was here and he’s not. We’re in Victory Lane and we couldn’t believe it, and I was so happy for Brian. I just know what this means to him and the morale of the team.”

Earnhardt, meanwhile, ran the 500 laps at Martinsville while battling the flu that was going around in the garage. “I got to him too late,” Earnhardt said of Gordon. “I’m feeling pretty bad. I just got it (flu) last night and I felt bad this morning, but I feel worse right now than before the race.”

Two of the most iconic paint schemes in NASCAR history belonged to the black No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet driven by Dale Earnhardt and the rainbow-hued No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Jeff Gordon. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

2000 Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400, Richmond International Raceway

The final 1-2 finish for Gordon and Earnhardt was another weekend more eventful for the news of the day than the race itself. In the wake of fatal accidents earlier in the year at New Hampshire International Speedway (now New Hampshire Motor Speedway), NASCAR announced plans to use restrictor plates on its next visit to the New England track. While Earnhardt lauded NASCAR for taking action to improve safety, he did not like the use of the plates, nor did he care for drivers complaining about safety. “I think the same thing about restrictor plates I’ve always thought about restrictor plates: It’s not racing,” said Earnhardt. “It’s not … a totally safe situation anywhere you race. I accepted that when I came into racing.”

Also at Richmond, Ray Evernham made his debut as a team owner, fielding a Ford for Casey Atwood. Evernham Motorsports would bring Dodge back to NASCAR in 2001, but for three races in 2000, they ran Fords for Atwood, who finished 19th at Richmond.

Gordon, meanwhile, didn’t get to the front until Lap 386 of the 400-lap race. Once out front, he held on over the final 15 laps to defeat Earnhardt by 0.744 seconds. After uncharacteristically struggling for much of the season, Gordon was pleased to be back in Victory Lane. “I think this is our best win by far,” Gordon said. “…It was pretty nice to see how things came together tonight. It says a lot for this race team. “I heard a lot of guys say, ‘We kept the faith,’ and that’s right. These guys never gave up.”

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Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For more than 25 years, he has been part of the NASCAR media industry.