There have been many memorable brawls in NASCAR throughout the years, but the fight between Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon's teams on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway might have topped them all.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup is a 10-race battle for the championship in NASCAR's premier series. Round 9 of the postseason at Phoenix was more than a fight. It was literally a slugfest. And it didn't involve the top-two title contenders, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson.
In NASCAR's era of "Boys, Have At It," mayhem broke out in the garage area at Phoenix when crew members from Bowyer and Gordon's teams really had at it after Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer in the closing laps of the race.
Bowyer made contact with Gordon while the two were battling for a top-five position. Gordon had a tire go down and then hit the outside wall. He patiently waited for Bowyer to come around the track before he took him out, as both drivers slammed into the wall. Joey Logano and Aric Almirola also were collected in the wreck.
After Gordon drove back to the garage area and hopped out of his heavily damaged No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, members of Bowyer's crew swooped on the four-time Cup champion and attacked him. Gordon's crew quickly intervened, and the scuffle was on.
Apparently, the feud between Bowyer and Gordon had been escalating throughout the season, and it reached the boiling point at Phoenix.
"Clint has run into me numerous times and wrecked me," Gordon said. "I had it. That was it, and I got him back."
As the brawl appeared to be over, Clint Bowyer got out of his No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota and ran toward Gordon's hauler. But NASCAR personnel and track security officers prevented Bowyer from continuing the altercation.
Gordon and Bowyer are both in this year's 12-member Chase field. Heading into Phoenix, Gordon was 72 points out of the lead and his chances of winning the championship were all but over. But Bowyer remained a title contender, a long shot though, as he trailed by 36 points.
When then points leader Johnson crashed on lap 235 and spent almost 40 laps behind the wall for repairs, it appeared that Bowyer's title hopes were still alive, if he could leave Phoenix with a top-10 finish. It didn't happen.
"That was my opportunity to try to get myself back in the championship hunt," Bowyer said. "When you're disrupting a championship run like that, it's too bad. (NASCAR officials) asked us not to do that in the drivers' meeting, and there's usually a lot of respect there.
"It's crazy. I didn't even need to pass him. I was plenty content riding behind him, and he slipped down there. I get under him, and here he comes back. I just barely touched him, and then all the sudden, I feel him trying to retaliate. I don't know. He missed or something and hit the wall and made himself look like a fool."
When asked if he would retaliate against Gordon in the future, Bowyer replied, "We just have to see."
Bowyer's payback might have to wait until at least next season, depending on what or if any "unsportsmanlike conduct" penalties are issued by NASCAR this week. Gordon knows there could be action taken by NASCAR on him.
"They've got to do what they've got to do, just like I had to do what I had to do," he said.
All three of NASCAR's national touring series will conclude their seasons this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Keselowski's sixth-place run compared to a 32nd-place finish for Johnson allowed Keselowski to take a 20-point lead over Johnson.
Gordon's retaliation against Bowyer followed by the physical confrontation between both teams has certainly earned a spot on the list of NASCAR's most famous brawls. The fist fight between Cale Yarborough and brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison during the 1979 Daytona 500 is perhaps the most notable one. The clash between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in the 2011 Southern 500 at Darlington, the altercation between Harvick and Greg Biffle in a 2002 Nationwide Series race at Bristol and the fight between Gordon and Jeff Burton on the backstretch during the 2010 Chase event at Texas are worth mentioning as well.
As customary, after any physical altercation during a race, officials had a sit-down with Bowyer and Gordon in the NASCAR hauler following the event. Several security officers stood guard outside the hauler as the meeting took place. NASCAR is hopeful no further incidents between the two will occur down the road like the one they had at Phoenix.
"We'll continue to talk and work things out amongst the teams," NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said shortly after the race concluded. "It's a close community. We all travel together, and we have to work side by side for weeks and months and years at a time. We'll continue to try to get everybody back calmed down and get it back to a good working situation for everybody."
One thing is for sure about the Bowyer-Gordon incident. It certainly entertained the estimated crowd of 87,000 at Phoenix, and it made for good water cooler chat for millions of NASCAR fans the day after. Race winner Harvick thought the incident was a good thing for NASCAR.
"The sport was made on fights," he said. "We should have more fights. I like fights. They're not always fun to be in, and sometimes you're on the wrong end. But fights are what made NASCAR what it is."
But was it a good thing for the sport? Some didn't think so, particularly Keselowski, who ran behind Bowyer, Gordon and Logano when the crash occurred. The current points leader managed to get by without being caught up in the wreck. After racing Johnson hard in the final laps of last week's race at Texas, Keselowski received a lot of flak from his fellow competitors for his aggressive driving.
"Well, it's the double-standard that 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," Keselowski said. "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 (ticks) me off. It's just (expletive) ridiculous, and they should be ashamed. It's embarrassing."
It might have been embarrassing for NASCAR, but it was entertaining for the fans. And NASCAR needed that.