Sunday’s NASCAR race featured fireworks, fights and a reversal of fortune for its gold standard Jimmie Johnson.
Oh, and Kevin Harvick broke a 44-race winless streak for his third Cup career win at Phoenix International Raceway on a track he claimed “was more oil than asphalt” at the finish.
But that was just the beginning.
For Jeff Gordon, it was no more Mr. Nice Guy. After several run-ins between he and Clint Bowyer this season – including at Martinsville Speedway in April where Gordon led 329 laps before Bowyer took him and Johnson out of contention on what should have been the final restart – he took matters into his own hands. Bowyer slid into Gordon on Lap 305 as the two drivers battled for fifth place.
On Lap 311, Gordon retaliated. He clipped Bowyer and collected Joey Logano and Aric Almirola in in the process in Turn 4.
With the No. 15 car still smoking, Bowyer’s crew forged their attack on Gordon’s men. Bowyer climbed from his vehicle in a full-out sprint to Gordon’s hauler. However, Bowyer was restrained by NASCAR officials and sheriff’s deputies before he could enter. Eventually, Gordon slipped out of his transporter with a police escort to the NASCAR hauler. Bowyer and the crew chiefs soon followed.
“Things have gotten escalated over the year,” Gordon said after meeting with NASCAR. “And I’ve just had it. Clint’s run into me numerous times and wrecked me. He got into me in the back straightaway and pretty much ruined our day and I had it. I was fed up with it and pretty much just got him back.
“They had to do what I had to do and I have to do what I have to do.”
After Bowyer emerged from the NASCAR hauler, he referred to the incident as “a shame.”
“The last person in the world you want to get into anything with is Jeff Gordon on the racetrack,” Bowyer said. “You’re down there racing, the track is extremely slick. We’re all on old tires. I didn’t even need to pass him. That’s the thing. I was just riding around, biding my time. All I had to do was keep the 5 car (of Kasey Kahne) in reach. So for him to act like that – I barely touched him and then I feel him in Turn 3 try to turn me and he missed and then the next thing I know is (spotter) Brett (Griffin’s) telling me on the radio that he’s trying to – he’s waiting on me.
“It makes us all look like a bunch of retards. It’s pretty embarrassing for a four-time champion and what I consider one of the best this sport’s ever seen to act like that is just completely ridiculous.”
Bowyer, who entered the weekend 36 points behind Johnson, dropped from third to fourth in the standings. As the laps wound down, Bowyer said his objective was remaining ahead of Kahne in the points standings. When Bowyer was wrecked, he was running fifth – two spots behind Kahne who entered the race 22 points behind him. Two points now separate the drivers.
Bowyer left the possibility for revenge open. Despite the discussion with NASCAR brass in the hauler, he concluded that there was little that could be accomplished at this juncture. And it was definitely too early to have a conversation with Gordon.
“You’ve got to go on to Homestead,” Bowyer said. “I’ve got to try to beat the 5 car. But that was my opportunity to try to get myself back in the championship hunt. When you’re disrupting a championship run like that, it’s too bad.
“They asked us not to do that in the drivers’ meeting and there’s usually a lot of respect there. Like I said, it’s crazy. I barely rubbed him and then all of the sudden I feel him trying to retaliate and missed or something and hit the wall and made himself look like a fool.”
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton called the incident “surely a shame.” However, despite Gordon lying in wait for Bowyer, the sanctioning body never stepped in via radio.
“There’s a lot of tension out there when you’re running for the points and the championship, and things like that happen,” Pemberton said. “We’ll continue to talk to the drivers and get them to work it out.”
Several competitors complained about the condition of the track following the accident. Despite a 15-minute red-flag period to clean the track, the surface was still treacherous as the race was extended to 319 laps.
And tires were an issue throughout the event as several drivers blew out right fronts. However, no one was affected to the degree of Johnson, who slammed into the Turn 4 wall on Lap 235 after heat from his brakes melted his tire bead, according to Goodyear.
Johnson was running seventh at that moment with Brad Keselowski leading the race.
“They’re going to the garage,” spotter Joey Meier told Keselowski.
The No. 48 crew spent nearly 20 minutes making repairs before Johnson returned to the track on Lap 273, 38 laps behind the leaders and 33rd in the running order. He would finish 34th. Johnson left the track trailing Keselowski by 20 points. With just one race remaining, Johnson said the championship is “way, way out of our control after the problem we had today.”
“We still have to go to Homestead and race, and anything can happen down there,” Johnson said. “But not the position you want to be in leaving Phoenix. I feel terrible for my team and how hard those guys work at Hendrick Motorsports.
“There was a huge effort for them just to try to get us a championship, and I just hate for our day to turn out as it did today. But that’s racing, and we’ll go to Homestead and do all we can down there and see how things pan out.”
Johnson was making significant progress after starting 24th. But for the driver that has been accused of having a golden horseshoe, fate caught up with Johnson on Sunday.
“We were cruising along, and I think we were going to have a top-10 day, maybe a top-five day if things worked out at the end right front,” Johnson said. “I had a slight vibration starting in the right front. I didn’t know where it was really coming from, but we know now that it was the right front. As I was coming off of Turn 4 it went down and straight in the wall it went.
“Another 30, 40 feet around the corner I probably would have just had a flat and not hit the wall, but where it let go I had a direct line into the wall and knocked it down.”
Keselowski was running third when Johnson returned to the track. Meier continually reminded his driver of “the big picture.”
Still, action was slowed by Tony Stewart’s spin on Lap 281. Although Keselowski had decent tire wear throughout the race, given the earlier issues crew chief Paul Wolfe opted for fresh rubber.
Keselowski restarted 10th on Lap 284 and gained two positions in the first five laps. He was seventh when the seventh caution ignited after his teammate Sam Hornish Jr. cut a tire after contact with Danica Patrick.
The following restart on Lap 305 triggered the Gordon-Bowyer scuffle. While drama developed in the garage between the Nos. 15 and 24 crews, track workers spent 15 minutes attempting to clean the track. But it would be short-lived. As the race went to overtime, Patrick made contact with Jeff Burton on the backstretch entering Turn 3.
“The No. 31 clipped me, I spun around, got it going again,” said Patrick, who was running in the top 15. “Was on fire I think, and I was trying to get across the line. I was literally trying to drive into the wall then drive along it because I couldn’t see. I don’t know exactly what happened. I heard there might have been oil from me, or something. If so, I definitely wasn’t intending to make a mess.”
However, as she limped to the start/finish line, Harvick led the parade of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman to the checkers. Greg Biffle slid through her oil and bounced off of Ryan Newman and pushed Kurt Busch into Keselowski.
Although the right side of the No. 2 Dodge was pancaked down the stretch, Keselowski savaged a sixth-place finish and the points lead.
“It’s really tough to just survive a race like that physically and mentally and I felt very lucky to do so,” Keselowski said. “It makes me feel like that could happen the other way around next week and we could be right back out of this thing. You can’t take anything for granted in this sport.”
What was missing from Keselowski’s run, however, was joy. Despite regaining the points lead Sunday after Johnson dominated the competition the last two weeks with victories from the pole, Keselowski was disgusted by what he viewed as the double standard established by some of the more vocal drivers in the garage. The smear campaign was led last week by Tony Stewart who remarked that Keselowski had a death wish after the driver raced Johnson exceptionally tight at Texas.
“I felt like we had a race-winning car and I wanted to take the points lead by winning a race and not relying on a failure," Keselowski said. "But sometimes that’s not how the sport works and you have to accept that. I’m more just disappointed in the quality of racing that we saw today. I thought it was absolutely ridiculous, and I was ashamed to be a part of it.
“I spent a whole week being bashed by a half a dozen drivers about racing hard at Texas and how I’m out of control and have a death wish, and then I see (expletive) like that. That’s (expletive). That’s all you can call that. These guys just tried to kill each other. You race hard and I get called an (expletive) for racing hard and called with a death wish, and I see (expletive) like that, and it just (expletive) me off. … it’s just (expletive) ridiculous, and they should be ashamed. It’s embarrassing.”
Although Harvick was still trying to figure out why the final caution flew since he claimed to have taken the white flag prior, he supported Keselowski’s take on the situation saying the driver just “races hard.”
“Why would you criticize a guy that races hard and is in contention to win a championship,” Harvick asked. “I think there’s maybe a lot of agendas to try to get in his head, but at this point he’s got a 20-point lead and he’s the only one that controls his head at this point. If the wheels don’t fall off, he’s going to win the championship.”
As for the pit-clearing brawl in the garage, Harvick contends “the sport was made on fights.”
“We should have more fights,” Harvick said. “I like fights. They’re not always fun to be in. Sometimes you’re on the wrong end. But fights are what made NASCAR what it is.”
And if Phoenix is a taste of the undercard, expect one heck of a prize fight come next week at Homestead.