There's no question once Jeff Gordon debuted in NASCAR in 1992, it wasn't long after fans and media began connecting him to Dale Earnhardt Sr., particularly as a rival on the track.
And while Earnhardt may never intended it (or maybe he did), he may have helped Gordon connect with a lot of NASCAR fans and establish his own fan base.
"Absolutely there's no doubt I wouldn't have been as popular, and this is something we talk about today with the sport, with a guy like Jimmie (Johnson) winning five in a row, there just isn't that rivalry. It wasn't made up. It just happened," Gordon explained.
"Here's this young kid from California growing up in modern day motorsports, just growing up being interviewed on ESPN and all those things, to old-school, hard-knocks Dale Earnhardt. It was just black and white, just two total opposites in a way, even though later, as Dale and I got to know one another, we weren't as opposite as maybe it was perceived from the outside. Still, that's the way the fans thought of it and the way the media thought of it. It heightened the excitement of those races, those championship battles."
Gordon said it was his objective to avoid rivalries, much like his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson appears to do. But that changed with Earnhardt.
"Dale was just one of those kind of guys that it worked really well for him to have a rival. He had several throughout his career and he thrived on it. You know, that was never really my style. I didn't ever feel like, 'Hey, you know, Dale's not here, now I've got to take over that role.' It was, We all have our personalities, our jobs, and let's do them the best that we can," Gordon said.
"He helped build this sport to a level we're proud of and need to keep going. I miss that. We need it. We can't create it. It's going to happen. I mean, I think that's some of the excitement about Kyle (Busch), is he brings a uniqueness that people either love or hate. You get Kyle battling for the championship with somebody like Jimmie or myself, it's definitely going to stir that up."