There is no fan base in the world more passionate about what they love than NASCAR. Fans tune in every week to see their heroes go to battle, hoping they will do anything to capture the checkered flag. Favorite and least favorite drivers are chosen, naturally, due to watching the actions of the drivers on the track. Sometimes it happens instantly and sometimes that love or hatred builds over time.
The same can be said for all of the competitors on the track. Reputations grow with every pass, every bump and every word. Every driver ticks a different way. You have mild-mannered drivers who have the respect of the entire field and come back with their car as clean as it was when it came out of the hauler. There are drivers who will fight back – but only if they are pushed around.
Then there are those who will move anyone out of the way in an instant if it means they can advance a position on the leaderboard. Those who get on the radio and TV and back up their actions on the track. These are the drivers who gain a reputation for doing anything and not caring about anybody else but themselves and winning.
On Throwback Weekend at a track in Darlington Raceway where we’ve seen legends made, we look back at the instigators of NASCAR.
“The Man in Black.” “The Intimidator.” You don’t earn those nicknames by driving clean and without ruffling some feathers. Dale Earnhardt is looked at by many as being one of if not the best, the most intimidating and often the biggest instigator of all time.
Earnhardt gained his driving style from watching his father Ralph race while he was just a kid. It seemed like during the 1980s that the more races Earnhardt won and the more titles he captured, the angrier the entire field was at the rising star from Kannapolis, North Carolina.
Earnhardt was fined $10,000 for moving Darrell Waltrip out of the lead at Richmond. Race leader Sterling Marlin’s chance at his first career victory ended after Earnhardt put him into the wall at Bristol. Bill Elliott and Geoff Bodine were both furious with the way Earnhardt drove them at the end of the 1987 All-Star race at Charlotte.
Waltrip said Earnhardt on the track was like watching a Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers basketball game but with no referees. Marlin vowed revenge exclaiming “His day is coming, and he’ll get it too.” Elliott compared Earnhardt’s driving style to “a bull in a China closet.” All three drivers went on to talk about how they’d never even think about doing the things Earnhardt did to them to anyone else.
Earnhardt and Bodine’s rivalry was triggered by that incident in the All-Star race and led to a handful of other battles between the two. Bodine got payback for that race during an Xfinity Series race at Charlotte the following week. Earnhardt then returned the favor at Charlotte the next season and then again, the following day during the Cup Series race. This led to NASCAR issuing a five-lap penalty to Earnhardt. The two drivers were later gathered together off the track to settle the issue.
His aggression with everyone on the track continued, as the 1995 night race at Bristol ended with Earnhardt spinning Terry Labonte across the start/finish line to a chorus of boos. Earnhardt pulled into the garage and was met by a water bottle thrown at him by Rusty Wallace, who spun out early on after contact with Earnhardt.
It wasn’t just the way he drove on the track but how he backed his driving style up off it, with a plethora of moments defending himself.
“I’ve seen guys trying to spin me and they don’t. They run second. If I wanted to wreck someone, I could tell you what hole in the fence I was going to put ’em in. I do what I see fit when I’m on that track.
“I don’t do anything unjust. If beating ’em’s unjust, they’re just going to have to get beat. If it’s not, I do what I have to do.”
Earnhardt, forever instigating both on – and off – the track.
California’s Ernie Irvan burst onto the scene in 1990 with both speed and aggression that left a sour taste in the mouths of most of his competitors and fans. The biggest incident of his young career came at Darlington in 1990. Irvan, who was 10 laps down at the time, raced the leader Ken Schrader hard for one of his laps back but ended up causing a 14-car incident that sidelined Neil Bonnett for a significant amount of time.
Schrader said Irvan needed to calm down. Dale Earnhardt called his driving disrespectful. Irvan, on the other hand, was surprised Schrader was racing him hard and blamed the incident on just “racing.” The following season, Irvan was involved in an incident at Talladega that left Kyle Petty with a broken leg. He caused a huge pileup at Pocono too.
This all led to Irvan standing up and apologizing to the entire field at the drivers’ meeting when the series returned to Talladega later that season. “I’ve driven a little over-aggressive at times this season and I’ve lost the respect of a lot of drivers and car owners in the garage area. That really hurts me. I hope you’ll give me the chance to prove it and gain that respect back.”
The 1996 season saw contact from Irvan send Dale Earnhardt to the hospital and Sterling Marlin furious with Irvan. Marlin was so heated that during a press conference at Indianapolis the following Wednesday, Marlin waved his glasses at Irvan and suggested he get a pair. Marlin did it a second time and the two drivers had to be separated.
Throughout Tony Stewart’s first few years in the Cup Series, he had run-ins with Kenny Irwin Jr., Robby Gordon and Jeff Gordon just to name a few; setting an early precedent that he was not somebody that you wanted to mess with.
Stewart’s passion for winning didn’t take a backseat to anything. As Stewart put it after his incident with Irwin Jr. at Martinsville in 1999, “It’s the same thing when we ran sprint cars. He didn’t like to be behind me then either.”
His issues weren’t all just on the track either. He was fined in 2002 and placed on probation following a post-race incident with a cameraman. Stewart’s driving during the 2004 season left NASCAR on FOX’s Darrell Waltrip to be highly critical of the driver, prompting a handful of tense pre-race exchanges on TV between the two Hall of Famers. That same season an on-track incident between Stewart and Kasey Kahne started a fight on pit road during the race between the two teams.
He blasted David Gilliland in 2006 after a handful of incidents in a colorful interview. He also had run-ins with Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and, most famously, Joey Logano, calling him a “scared little kid” after a pit-road altercation.
Since he broke onto the scene, Kevin Harvick had a way of getting under just about everyone’s skin. The fiery antics of the driver were first put into the spotlight during his rookie Cup season in 2001. A late-race incident with Bobby Hamilton got Harvick sent into the NASCAR hauler. He didn’t back down in his post-race interview, exclaiming, “an eye for an eye, that’s how we race.”
The following season, Harvick was turned by Greg Biffle in an Xfinity Series race at Bristol. Harvick responded by hopping over Biffle’s car after the race and grabbing Biffle around the collar. Later that season, NASCAR suspended him after wrecking Coy Gibbs in a Truck Series event at Martinsville.
The 2003 season saw a heated incident between Harvick and the gritty veteran Ricky Rudd, who made contact with Harvick during the race at Richmond. Once the checkered flag waved, Harvick raced around the pits trying to find Rudd, before parking against the side of Rudd’s car on pit road. Harvick climbed out of his car but then stomped on the hood of Rudd’s car, setting off an altercation between the two teams.
He had on-track disagreements that led to heated conversations with Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joe Nemechek, Ty Dillon, Joey Logano and Chase Elliott, just to name a few.
You could make a case that his biggest rival was Kyle Busch – the pair are still battling for wins and are currently ninth and 10th all-time on the NASCAR Cup Series wins list. The 2005 Xfinity season saw the two tangle at Dover in the midst of Harvick racing for the owners’ championship. Their relationship through the years has been full of hard racing on the track, colorful interviews and many heated moments – though they remain friendly today.
Kyle Busch started his career as a driver with the tough task of following his brother Kurt’s success. “Rowdy” not only matched that but also seemingly followed with his temper and aggressive driving.
Xfinity Series veteran Jason Keller’s crew had to be held back from Busch after Busch wrecked Keller off a restart at New Hampshire. Busch was promptly given a black flag for aggressive driving. Later that season, Busch dumped Ron Hornaday Jr. at Darlington, setting the tone for a rivalry that ended in Busch being suspended for intentionally wrecking Hornaday Jr. in a 2011 Truck race.
He threw his HANS device at Casey Mears car during the 2006 Coca-Cola 600. Busch even feuded with his brother Kurt at Charlotte the following season. If Busch wasn’t looked at as an instigator already, he moved Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the lead at Richmond in 2008 after the two had already been entangled a few times in the past.
Busch had high-profile feuds with Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, and those rivalries included countless amounts of incidents. A 2017 incident at Las Vegas between Busch and Keselowski’s then-teammate Joey Logano led to Busch taking a swing at Logano post-race.
Quite possibly the most polarizing driver in the Cup Series in a long time, Joey Logano has had his fair share of rivalries and intense moments through the years.
Throughout his career, he has had physical altercations with Denny Hamlin at both Bristol and Martinsville, Tony Stewart at Fontana, Kevin Harvick at Pocono, Ryan Newman at Michigan and Kyle Busch at Las Vegas.
He caught heat in 2012 when he moved Mark Martin out of the lead at Pocono, en-route to the win. His aggressive, do-anything-for-a-victory style of driving has triggered an infinite amount of drivers, most notably on superspeedways, where he has four victories.
His most notable feud came in 2015. Logano was battling Matt Kenseth for the win when Kenseth threw a huge block on Logano, who did not lift and sent Kenseth around. To add salt to Kenseth’s wounds, Logano ended the race in Victory Lane.
Fast forward to Martinsville next week. Kenseth, still angry with Logano from Kansas, sent Logano into the wall while the No. 22 was leading and ruined his chance at victory and the championship. Kenseth was promptly parked for the day and suspended.
Brad Keselowski’s first full-time Xfinity Series season came in 2008 and it wasn’t a quiet one for the Michigan driver. Keselowski made contact with Denny Hamlin a handful of times during a race at Charlotte, ending in an altercation between the two teams. A few weeks later Kevin Harvick threatened to dump him at Watkins Glen due to the way Keselowski was racing him hard.
His first Cup Series win came in dramatic fashion, taking the checkered flag at Talladega after contact between Carl Edwards and himself left the No. 99 of Edwards airborne. This inadvertently set off a long-standing rivalry between the two drivers. Later that season, Keselowski made contact with Edwards in an Xfinity Series race at Memphis. This culminated in a 2010 incident at Atlanta that made this new rivalry explode.
Keselowski’s No. 12 car bumped Edwards early in the running, sending Edwards into the wall and to the garage. Edwards returned to the race about 100 laps later seemingly with payback on his mind, sending Keselowski around before being parked by NASCAR for aggressive driving.
The following season the two battled for the Xfinity Series win at Gateway and Keselowski moved Edwards out of the way before racing side by side for the win on the backstretch. The race ended with Keselowski in the wall and both drivers being placed on probation by NASCAR.
The rivalry with Hamlin was still ongoing at the time as the two had altercations at Phoenix, which left Hamlin spinning and fuming at Keselowski. The following week Hamlin got his revenge at Homestead, spinning Keselowski out early in the race.
Keselowski’s aggressive driving at Richmond in 2014 left both Hamlin and Matt Kenseth angry with the driver. As Hamlin was being held back from confronting Keselowski later in the year at Charlotte, Kenseth appeared out of nowhere and attacked Keselowski between the haulers.
It wouldn’t be a complete list of instigators without mentioning the man they call “Mr. Excitement.” Jimmy Spencer only visited Victory Lane twice in his Cup Series career but he gave everything he had every single week on the race track.
An Xfinity Series incident at Hickory in 1989 with Dale Jarrett left Jarrett in the wall and Spencer in Victory Lane. Spencer was fined and suspended for the remainder of the 1993 Xfinity Series season after a post-race brawl between Spencer and Joe Bessey’s team.
In 1994, Spencer was penalized five laps at North Wilkesboro for retaliating under yellow against Ken Schrader. Two years later, he had to be restrained by NASCAR officials after sprinting toward Wally Dallenbach Jr.’s car after being involved in an incident. Spencer stomped away, screaming at the NASCAR officials in the process.
After a 1997 incident at Bristol, Geoff Bodine took a stand against Spencer. “It’s about time somebody told the truth. He’s wild out there. He’s crazy, ridiculous.”
The most notable rivalry of Spencer’s time behind the wheel was with rising star Kurt Busch. Spencer turned Busch during the 2001 fall race at Phoenix and the following season Busch paid Spencer back at Bristol, moving the veteran driver out of the way en route to his first career victory.
A few weeks later, Spencer paid Busch back in the Brickyard 400. Fast forward to 2003 and their rivalry finally came to blows at Michigan. The two raced hard throughout the event and after the race, the 46-year-old Spencer punched the 25-year-old Busch in the face while Busch was still inside his car in the garage. Busch was left with a broken tooth and bloody nose.
Spencer was suspended one race for the incident and fined $25,000 but that didn’t change his attitude.
“I will always protect myself and my race team,” Spencer said.
Buckshot Jones made a name for himself in the Xfinity Series by not only winning but ruffling tons of feathers on the way.
Jones’ hard battle with Joe Bessey for the win at Dover in 1997 ended in the No. 00 of Jones in the wall and Jones’ pit crew attempting to block the race-winning car of Bessey from entering Victory Lane.
The 1997 season also saw Jones tangle with Dale Shaw, prompting a brawl on pit road between the teams and fines to both drivers.
His well-documented rivalry with Randy LaJoie also started in 1997 at Talladega when the two got together. Jones was upset with LaJoie after the race and ran into LaJoie on the cool-down lap. LaJoie, who was already unbuckled, spun across the track and collected another innocent car. This left Jones with a $2,000 fine from NASCAR. A few months later, the night race at Bristol was highlighted by Jones moving LaJoie out of the lead late in the going before LaJoie returned the favor and put Jones in the wall. Jones then tried to retaliate against LaJoie and was parked by NASCAR.
Fireworks between the two drivers continued the following season as Jones made contact with LaLoie on the eighth lap at Nazareth, destroying the No. 74 of LaJoie. “I might have to take a trip somewhere and see what his problem is,” LaJoie said on the incident.
One of NASCAR’s earliest instigators, Curtis Turner was not shy when it came to laying the bumper to his competitors. Turner, who ran moonshine for his Dad as a child and later served in the Navy during World War II, seemed to always get under the skin of anyone he raced against.
He was most famously involved in a post-race incident with Lee Petty. Turner and Petty had been racing hard the entire race and that did not sit well with Petty, who approached Turner following the race and hit him with a tire iron. Another incident saw Turner being approached by Bobby Myers, was holding a billy club.
Turner’s reputation even once led to an incident where police needed to intervene. During a 1966 race at Bowman Gray Stadium, Turner and Bobby Allison took turns running into each other early on during the event. It got to the point where Turner would come to an all-but stop on the track and wait to get his revenge on Allison. Both drivers were disqualified from the race by just around the halfway point.
If you ever needed proof that Bobby Allison was an instigator, look no further than the start of his career. As a 28-year-old, he had Bill France sticking his head inside of his car during a pit stop, threatening him that if he didn’t stop his antics with Curtis Turner, he’d be banned from NASCAR. How did Allison take that? He simply drove back onto the track, eventually getting disqualified from the race for the way he continued to drive.
The infamous fight at the conclusion of the 1979 Daytona 500 was a helmet-throwing, blood-dripping brawl that saw Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Allison’s brother Donnie all fined for their antics.
Allison feuded with a multitudenumber of drivers during his career including Yarborough, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and anybody who would try to get in the way between his hands and the race-winning trophy. The Hall of Fame driver even once feuded with his car owner at the time, Junior Johnson, with Allison claiming Johnson gave him a bad engine in retaliation for the fact he was leaving the team at the end of the season.