HOMESTEAD, Fla. — When Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon made contact in the closing laps at Phoenix, Gordon was overcome by a grudge he’d been carrying at least seven months.
The four-time NASCAR champion retaliated by intentionally wrecking Bowyer, triggering a garage-area melee.
Gordon’s reputation took a hit among his peers and he was fined $100,000 by NASCAR. But he avoided suspension and will race Sunday in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he’ll celebrate his 20th anniversary with sponsor DuPont and Hendrick Motorsports.
He admitted Friday that DuPont had initial concerns NASCAR would park him this weekend for his actions Sunday at Phoenix, but he never worried he wouldn’t race at Homestead and he’s not sorry for wrecking Bowyer.
“The thing that I regret and the thing that I messed up on is that I allowed my anger and my emotions to put me in a position to make a bad choice,” Gordon said. “I felt like Clint needed to be dealt with, but that wasn’t the right way to go about it, certainly not the right time. And what I hate most about it is that other guys were involved with it and it affected their day.”
The wreck collected Joey Logano and Aric Almirola, and championship points leader Brad Keselowski had to dodge his way around the accident scene. It also triggered a brawl in the garage between Gordon’s crew and Bowyer’s crew that has received as much attention as the championship race between Keselowski and five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
It has also thrust the 41-year-old Gordon into the headlines at the end of yet another disappointing season.
He was docked 25 points for Sunday’s bad behavior, which dropped him to 11th in the Sprint Cup Series standings in this one-win season. He hasn’t won a championship since 2001, and teammate Johnson, who came on board in 2002, will race for his sixth title Sunday.
So his actions on Sunday were certainly that of a frustrated driver, and he admitted wrecking Bowyer sent a message to the garage.
“I don’t think they’re going to be messing with me for a little while. I think they realize that that message was sent pretty clear,” Gordon said. “Throughout the last couple years, I feel like one thing that maybe I haven’t done enough of is show the fire inside me that I have to want to win and want to win championships. And I think that while I would have liked to have gone about it differently on Sunday, I think it did show that that fire and passion is inside of me in a big way.”
So big that he’d been angry with Bowyer since Martinsville in April, when Bowyer played a role in costing Hendrick Motorsports its 200th victory.
The race had been dominated that day by Gordon and Johnson, and a late caution had set up a restart with the teammates lined up side-by-side at the front. Bowyer re-started in the second row, on new tires, and got a shove from behind from Ryan Newman. He dove to the inside of Gordon and Johnson, made contact, and all three wrecked.
It was a crushing defeat for the Hendrick camp, which was moments away from celebrating a historic victory at Martinsville, site of some of the team’s most significant triumphs and its most heartbreaking tragedy. A Hendrick plane crashed en route to a 2004 race at Martinsville, among the 10 people on board were Hendrick’s brother, son, twin nieces, key team personnel and a DuPont representative.
At the April race with Hendrick, for the first time since the 2004 plane crash, were the widows of Hendrick’s brother and the DuPont executive.
“We were all wanting to win more than anything, more than any championship. The 200th win at Martinsville meant so much to all of us because we lost so much there,” Hendrick said Friday. “And that was taken away from us. Both of our cars were wrecked on the last lap and next to last lap and it was by the 15 car (Bowyer). I have never hurt as bad in my life leaving the race track as I did that day. It took me a week or so to get over it just because we had it in our grasp. And that’s just emotions that we carry and nobody else. So I think that situation, along with some other things that happened along the way, you know, you don’t forget it.”
Bowyer and Gordon spoke at the track that day, and Bowyer texted Hendrick after the race. The two drivers have had other on-track incidents between them this season, including another run-in at Martinsville last month, but they had a conversation after that, too.
But something made Gordon snap late in Sunday at Phoenix, when enough was finally enough when he and Bowyer got together. When Gordon retaliated, it mathematically eliminated Bowyer from championship contention, but Gordon said Bowyer has to accept responsibility for putting himself in that position.
“If you’re contending for the championship, you’ve got to be as smart about the things you do on the race track as the guys that you’re racing that might be outside the championship,” Gordon said. “And there was absolutely no reason to run into me.”
The only thing Gordon feels badly about is Logano getting collected in the accident. He said he spoke to Logano on the phone and “I can’t say it went exactly very well” and he’d like to follow-up at the track.
As for what’s next, Gordon doesn’t know. But he understands the attention on the incident with Bowyer, and the effect it might have on the season finale.
“I would tune in the following Sunday and see what happens,” he said.