TALLADEGA, Ala. - Accept it, race fans: Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were buddies.
The old man respected the kid and took time to help him adjust to NASCAR's politics. Earnhardt recognized Gordon as a huge talent and cherished their on-track battles, knowing each victory was a win over a driver destined to go down as one of the best.
It's fact, yet many Earnhardt fans choose to ignore it.
They pretend the two drivers were bitter rivals, two very different men with nothing in common. No matter how hard he tries or what he accomplishes, Earnhardt fans are adamant that Gordon simply does not stack up against The Intimidator.
Turns out, though, that Gordon is a whole lot more like Earnhardt than anyone imagined.
Gordon proved it Sunday with career victory No. 77, which pushed him past Earnhardt for sixth place on NASCAR's list. It came at Talladega Superspeedway, where the crowd is virtually all pro-Earnhardt, and on the day Earnhardt would have celebrated his 56th birthday.
The feat was met with a shower of beer cans thrown from the stands.
The record book will show that Gordon took the lead with three laps to go and then won under caution during overtime. But the victory seemed destined hours earlier when he made an Earnhardtesque stand in the prerace drivers' meeting.
NASCAR warned the drivers that there's a fine line between skillfully bump-drafting and aggressive driving. Gordon respectfully disagreed. In a room packed with his peers, he spoke with NASCAR president Mike Helton about the dangers the drivers were about to face.
"I absolutely don't think there is a fine line," he began. "We're not able to mandate it ourselves. You guys have to mandate it because we've got the adrenaline flowing. We're competitors out there trying to win. And we see one guy push another guy, it allows us each to continue to do it more and more and more.
"And, yeah, obviously, you can't do it in the corners, but we still do it. Even on the straightaways, it's about judging the speed, and we're still wrecking on the straightaways. I don't think that should be happening at all. We can make a great, exciting race out there. And no offense to your warning, but when you drop the green, I guarantee we're going to be doing it."
And that, Tony Stewart, is how to make a point.
Days after Stewart exposed the sport to ridicule by comparing it to professional wrestling on his national radio show, Gordon calmly made a point to NASCAR that benefited all 43 drivers in the field.
For a guy who has resisted replacing the voice that was lost when Earnhardt died in 2001, Gordon certainly appeared a perfect fit for the role Sunday.
He insisted after his victory that too much was being made of his stand - even though the race was much tamer by Talladega standards and might have been because of his comments.
"It was kind of a spur of the moment thing," he said. "I wanted to go see (NASCAR) before the drivers' meeting, and I didn't get a chance to, and something sparked inside of me and I just had to say something. I don't know if that made a difference or not, but (the race) was one of the best.
"But it had nothing to do with trying to set an example for others of how you go about it. I always try to go about saying things to NASCAR as gingerly as I can to try to get my point across, but not put anything down or take away from anything or anybody."
Former series champion Kurt Busch said Gordon has "always been the lead guy to be politically correct with NASCAR."
"Gordon is very selective with his words," he said.
Teammate Jimmie Johnson said the prerace comments were something most drivers would not have been comfortable making.
"If many other drivers would have spoken up and said what Jeff did in the drivers' meeting, it would have come off wrong and people would have laughed," Johnson said. "It wouldn't have come off the same way. But Jeff is at that spot in his career and he's so well spoken and comes from a fair place when he's speaking about those things, that people are listening."
The garage has lacked that presence since Earnhardt's fatal accident. Gordon insists he doesn't want to fill that void, and Stewart proved last week that while his message may be valid, his delivery lacks the finesse Earnhardt perfected.
"I know that Jeff doesn't want to be Dale," Johnson said. "He wants to be himself and do things his own way. I know he doesn't want to be in this position to be the voice of the drivers, but he almost has this responsibility that's developing for him whether he wants it or not."
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