Although NASCAR isn't on the verge of becoming ''Days of Thunder,'' one of Robert Duvall's best lines from the rough-and-tumble 1990 movie about big-time stock car racing hasn't been lost on Jeff Gordon.
''He's just rubbin' you ... and rubbin' is racin','' Duvall, who plays a crew chief, tells a complaining Tom Cruise, who stars as driver Cole Trickle.
''If they rub me the wrong way, I'm going to rub them right back,'' said Gordon, one of several drivers involved in squabbles this year over contact between cars during and after races. ''It's so competitive out there that you've got to do something to stand up to guys, to show them you mean business.''
That's how he's approaching next season, when he will defend his fourth Winston Cup championship starting with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. Gordon expects more exchanges, such as those he had this year with Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart, because the level of competition has never been higher.
Records were set when 19 drivers won races, and five did so for the first time. That's part of the reason for much of the rough stuff, says Rusty Wallace, whose celebrated banging and bumping with Ricky Rudd led to a sit-down for both with NASCAR.
''You used to have six guys that could always win,'' Wallace said. ''Now you've got 19.''
With so many teams able to hire top people and so much financial backing that most can afford better equipment, it seems a little more crowded each season at the front of the pack. That creates a challenge for NASCAR, which considers playing traffic cop far preferable to a select few drivers leaving the others far behind race after race.
Mike Helton, the sanctioning body's president, concedes the drivers might be more aggressive. But he attributes most of the extracurricular bumping to the natural frustration some drivers feel in heat-of-the-battle racing.
''More than aggressiveness, I think it's the close competitiveness of the sport, and that's one of the things we build on,'' Helton said. ''The closeness of the competition creates a lot of activity on the track, and we're probably at an all-time high for that.''
NASCAR especially wants to prevent the kind of postrace scenes where drivers bang into one another out of anger over something that happened under the green flag. Helton insists NASCAR walks a fine line between not disturbing the competitiveness of the races and keeping them from getting out of hand.
But stock car racing has always been about bumping and banging, and that style served NASCAR well as it grew from its Southern roots into a mainstream national sport.
''It's something we'll have to watch, and if it grows into a problem, then we'll react on the race track and do something about it,'' Helton said.
They did just that last month at New Hampshire International Speedway after Jeff Gordon retaliated for being knocked out of the lead by eventual winner Robby Gordon in the waning laps of the season-ending New Hampshire 300. The champion was penalized a lap, and finished 15th.
Jeff was angry, accusing Robby of intentionally crashing him, but didn't take issue with the penalty.
''They handled it the right way,'' Jeff said of NASCAR. ''Robby did a good job making it look like an accident. I didn't do a very good job of making mine look like an accident, which it wasn't.''
Another driver who was involved in plenty of rubbing and bumping was Rookie of the Year Kevin Harvick. His tactics enraged some of the drivers, including Rudd and Bobby Hamilton.
In September, Hamilton accused Harvick of trying to replace Dale Earnhardt as NASCAR's premier banger. Harvick, now being called The Instigator, got his ride after The Intimidator was killed in the Daytona 500.
Harvick, who also won the Busch series title, admits to being very aggressive. But don't expect him to mellow out in 2002.
''That's how I've raced forever,'' he said. ''They want to throw stones, I'll throw them back. They're not going to change the way we race.
''This is a dog-eat-dog world. If you're not doing good, there's somebody out there looking to take your job.''
Dale Earnhardt Jr. can see Harvick's point and says drivers have to be aggressive to succeed.
''If you let people believe they've intimidated you, then you've lost half of the battles on the race track.'' he said. ''You just have to be a tough guy, and it's not a bad deal every once in a while to put the nose into somebody to show him you can still do it.''
Putting the fender or bumper to his brethren is nothing new to Wallace, who has had run-ins with Gordon and Earnhardt's father. But Wallace doesn't think this season was much worse than any in recent memory.
''Me and Rudd for a few weeks, yeah,'' Wallace said. ''But I think the sport needs that to fire everybody up now and then.''
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End Adv for Thursday, Dec. 20
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