Jeff Gordon (24) retaliates with Clint Bowyer, triggering a huge melee and pit road brawl (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Once again a relatively uneventful NASCAR playoff race turned wild -- this time with mayhem and chaos, cars in the air, cars on fire -- in the final minutes, with a full-scale pit road melee between the Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon crews after the two drivers tangled hard with less than two miles to go in the Phoenix 500-K.
Kevin Harvick won the race, but that was a sidelight to the real action.
While that amazing brawl HERE will make the highlights film, the biggest news from the race occurred earlier -- this track once again lived up to its infamous reputation as a graveyard for championship contenders, when Jimmie Johnson crashed midway through Sunday's 500 when his right-front tire blew.
The sport's five-time champion, and the Sprint Cup tour's points leader at the start of the 312-mile race, hit the wall on lap 238 of 312 when his tire went down, apparently when the sealing bead melted because of excessive brake heat.
So title challenger Brad Keselowski got the biggest break of what has been a breakout season, and he and crew chief Paul Wolfe will go into the season's Homestead-Miami finale next weekend with a 20-point lead over Johnson. That means even if Johnson wins Homestead and leads the most laps, Keselowski could earn the championship by finish 16th or better and leading a lap.
The Bowyer-Gordon brawl (which brought sheriff's deputies into play, displaying mace, to protect Gordon) was not the only wild incident.
NASCAR red-flagged the race for 15 minutes to clean up the Bowyer-Gordon mess, and that set up a two-lap green-white-checkered shootout.
Harvick, a major story line this weekend with reports that he has signed a contract to leave Richard Childress and join Tony Stewart for the 2014 season -- was the new leader, with the day's dominant driver, Kyle Busch, right beside him.
Harvick slipped away to win by three lengths.
A blown right-front tire put Jimmie Johnson in the wall, and leaves Brad Keselowski on the verge of his first-ever NASCAR championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But right behind Harvick and Busch there was a huge pileup.
Danica Patrick tangled with Jeff Burton in turn three on the restart, and she tagged the outside wall. As she limped around the track and pulled to the inside, she apparently laid down a huge patch of oil.
NASCAR did not throw a yellow, and that proved controversial.
When the lead pack came back around and hit the oil, all hell broke loose, cars crashing. Kurt Busch's car wound up on fire and under Patrick's car, when Patrick's car bounced high into the air.
There were no apparent injuries; drivers were examined at the infield care center and released. Kurt Busch spent the longest time in the care center before being released.
Danica Patrick tried to get out of the way after tagging the wall in the final moments of the race, but drivers and car owners criticised NASCAR officials for not throwing a caution (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski was quite subdued after the race, particularly considering that the day's events all but clinched the championship for him.
"I felt we had a race-winning car, and I wanted to take the points lead by winning this race, not because of somebody having a broken part," Keselowski began.
Then Keselowski launched into an angry tirade, harshly criticizing his fellow drivers for racing dangerously aggressively.
"I was more disappointed with the quality of racing today," Keselowski said. "It was ridiculous, and I'm ashamed to be a part of it. The retaliation is out of control in this sport; we have drivers who feel their manhood is threatened. It's (expletive) ridiculous.
"And it's going to get somebody hurt. We walk a line between being chess players and daredevils. And we're not walking that line very well.
"These guys just tried to kill each other. I get criticized all week for racing hard at Texas, and having a 'death wish' (as Tony Stewart said).
"It's embarrassing to be part of a championship race and be criticized for being out of control -- by people who race like this."
Kevin Harvick ends a year-plus drought by winning Sunday's Phoenix 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The Bowyer-Gordon run-in was one of the incidents he was referring to.
Bowyer tangled first with Gordon, who wound up in the wall, with about six laps to go. Then as leader Kevin Harvick was coming off turn four to take the while, Gordon made what appeared to be a premeditated move to wreck Bowyer, which took out others too, including Joey Logano.
Bowyer is having his best season ever and was third in the standings coming into this race. Bowyer, after getting crashed, went wild, running from his banged up car full-speed toward Gordon in his hauler, where he was quickly restrained by sheriff's deputies.
Alan Gustafson, Gordon's crew chief: "It's about the fifth time he's run us over, and after a while you get frustrated. Evidently Jeff had had enough."
Gordon was called to the NASCAR hauler for a lengthy post-race discussion; no details were released, but Gordon could possibly be penalized for his actions. If so, any penalty would likely come Tuesday.
"They've got to do what they've got to do....and I've got to do what I've got to do," a sullen Gordon said.
"Things just got escalated over the year, and I'd just had it. Clint has run into me numerous times, wrecked me. He got into me on the backstraight and pretty much ruined our day."
Brian Pattie, Bowyer's crew chief, was clearly not happy with Gordon: "If we go to Homestead and nothing to lose...."
While there are few indications of how NASCAR might handle the Gordon situation, Bowyer was battling for fifth with Gordon when things got out of hand. And Bowyer at that point was still in the running for the championship. When Kyle Busch crashed Truck title contender Ron Hornaday one year ago, NASCAR responded by suspending him. That however is a very, very rare call.
Bowyer's take: "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.
"It's crazy. It's just a shame. The last person in the world you want to get into anything with is Jeff Gordon.
"You're racing...the track's extremely slick...I didn't even need to pass him. The only thing I had to do was keep Kasey Kahne within reach.
"So for him (Gordon) to act like that....I barely touched him (in making the initial pass). Then I feel him get into turn three and try to turn me. He missed. The next thing I know...he's waiting on me.
"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 completely ridiculous."
Michael Waltrip, Bowyer's car owner, was hot, calling Gordon's shot at wrecking Bowyer "cowardly....a chicken move. I've never seen anything like what Jeff Gordon did to a guy racing for a championship. He purposely waits and tells everybody he's waiting, and wrecks our car and our hopes for racing for a championship.
"We're trying to keep everybody calm. It's just a lot of emotion."
Gordon and Bowyer and their crew chiefs were all called to the NASCAR hauler, which was quickly protected by a bevy of sheriff's deputies.
NASCAR's Robin Pemberton: "There's a lot of tension out there when you're running for points and the championship, and things like that happen. We'll continue to talk to the drivers and get them to work it out."
Was Gordon's move retaliation? "It's hard to say," Pemberton replied. "When you look at the way Clint came below him on the apron....you can read into it a lot of different ways.
"The best thing is to meet with the teams and meet with the drivers, try to put this behind us, and go on to Homestead.
"We'll try to get everybody calmed back down and get it back to a good working situation for everybody."
Is suspension for Gordon a possiblity? "Your best decisions are made sometime after Sunday night....maybe Monday or Tuesday," Pemberton said.
And what about the no-call on a caution for Patrick's oil, which Harvick described as a very wide stream? "She was out of harm's way...and we didn't see any fluid," Pemberton said. "There was smoke; it looked like tire smoke.
"It's easy to look back on it and wish you did something different. But at the time it didn't appear there was any fluid coming out of the car."
It was a great day for the race....and it was yet another relatively boring race....until all hell broke loose at the end (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)