It was almost like watching Richard Petty vs. David Pearson. Lap after lap, the second place driver stalks the leader, looking for a bobble, a slide, a slip to pounce upon. Sunday at Las Vegas, there would be no mistakes on the part of Tony Stewart, defending three-time champion, versus Jimmie Johnson, winner of five consecutive Sprint Cup titles. Stewart stole away with the spoils, thanks to a bold pass on a re-start. It was the 13th time Stewart and Johnson finished a race 1-2, with Smoke coming out on top for the sixth time.
NASCAR fans love rivalries. It doesn’t get much better Jimmie Johnson versus Tony Stewart. It’s the stealth southern Californian against the fierce Hoosier. It’s the family man taking on the fun-loving bachelor. It’s old school versus the new wave. The personalities and places of origin of these two champions may be quite divergent, but the results they achieve are very much the same- Johnson is 8th on the all-time victory list with 55, Stewart 15th with 45.
The last series champion not named Stewart or Johnson was Kurt Busch, back in 2004. Since then, Stewart has book-ended the five-year reign of Johnson as champion.
In the same vein as the Petty-Pearson is the mutual respect Sunday’s top two drivers have for one another.“He’s (Johnson) a class act. He’s either the first one to send you a text message or comes down to Victory Lane to tell you you did a good job,” Stewart said after the race. Of Stewart’s team Sunday, Johnson said, “Can’t take anything away from them. They were awfully strong, the fastest car all day long.”
If Las Vegas offers the best early season insight into who will be in contention, then we haven’t seen the last of these two duking it out for supremacy. In his post-race conference Stewart opined, ”You know guys like Jimmie, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, guys like that aren’t going to make mistakes at the end. There’s a reason they win a lot of races. That’s because when it comes to the bottom of the ninth, they need to make that big move, they know how to do that.”
Johnson has been money, shaking off the disaster at Daytona. An ordinarily slow starter, Stewart seems to have sprung from hibernation a little early this year. No doubt there will be others in the mix: Kenseth, Biffle, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, but what sets the champions apart (with the exception of the 2003 champion Kenseth) is these two have been there and cemented their “track cred.”
If you want a REAL rivalry, this is it. It’s mano a mano, champ against champ. All the others are circus acts, manufactured WWE shows by comparison. It’s the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, Celtics vs. Lakers, and North Carolina vs. Duke good. You want a clash of the titans in NASCAR? This is what I’m talkin’ about. Stay tuned for more.
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