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Clint Bowyer the victim of Jeff Gordon's NASCAR road rage

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Kevin Harvick came away the winner at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday, in a race that by all rights Kyle Busch should have won, in the ninth of the 10 Chase races that will determine this season’s NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. But that wasn’t the big story of the race. The pit crews of Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon became enraged then engaged in full-scale fisticuffs before the race was even completed because of the intentional carnage caused to Bowyer’s car by Gordon’s limping No. 24 car on the next to last lap of the scheduled 312-lap race.

This was a hugely important race for Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan. With only two races to go coming into the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix, Bowyer and his Michael Waltrip Racing team were hoping for a strong run on Sunday that would make up some much needed ground and keep them in the hunt for the 2012 Sprint Cup championship.

With less than 10 laps to go in Sunday’s race, Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota was running in the top five. The Chase points leader, Brad Keselowski was up among the leaders, but five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who was in second place just one spot ahead of Bowyer in the Chase standings, was finished for the day, having blown a tire and hit the wall on lap 234. Running side-by-side, Bowyer collided with and forced Gordon’s car against the wall on lap 305, apparently puncturing a tire in the 24 car in the process.

That was the beginning, or what Gordon later termed the last straw in what he alleged to be a long series of run-ins with Bowyer this season, of what, seven laps later, turned into an out-of-control and totally unnecessary act of revenge on Gordon’s part. Limping around the final laps on the one-mile Phoenix International racetrack, Gordon purposely lay in wait for a clear shot at Bowyer’s car, which he got between Turns 3 and 4 on lap 312, intentionally turning into the No. 15 car, crashing both vehicles and several other trailing cars and setting off a 15-minute pit-road melee more typical of a National Hockey League game than a stock car race.

The race was red-flagged after the incident, and both cars were too damaged to finish the race. Gordon was able to get his car off the track and drove it to the garage area. About that time, members of Bowyer’s pit crew raced on foot into Gordon’s garage area looking for the veteran NASCAR driver when considerable pushing and punching ensued between the two race teams. Gordon was quickly ushered by members of his Hendrick Motorsports team into the team’s nearby hauler. As Bowyer parked his severely damaged car on pit road, he caught a glimpse on a giant video board behind his pit stall area of the fight going on down pit road, much to the crowd’s delight.

The next thing everyone trackside and viewing on national TV across the country was the sight of Bowyer sprinting down to Gordon’s garage area, where he was physically restrained.

Not only does this unfortunate incident completely end any chance Bowyer had of capturing his first Sprint Cup championship, but it also cost him valuable points and a potentially higher finish in the Chase for the Cup standings that would earn him more mone. And the worst of it is, it didn’t have to happen, and shouldn’t have, in the first place. Not to mention the image implications and embarrassment the public and highly physical altercation created for NASCAR.

Gordon is a four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and a highly respected and revered veteran of the sport, but he does have a mean side, due to his highly competitive nature, and this side of him came out in full force and in full public view on Sunday. The 23-year NASCAR veteran contends that this was another of numerous on-track run-ins he has had this year with Bowyer and the No. 15 5-Hour Energy car, and it had finally reached the point that the 41-year-old Gordon was fed up and felt he had to do something about it.

I don’t think this is what NASCAR had in mind when it came out a year ago with its more relaxed “boys have at it” approach, allowing the drivers more latitude to race hard.

“It’s just things have gotten escalated over the year, and I’ve just had it,” Gordon said after meeting with NASCAR officials following Sunday’s race. “Clint’s run into me numerous times, wrecked me, and he got into me on the back straightaway and pretty much ruined our day. I’ve had it and was fed up with it and got him back.”

Said Bowyer about the on-track incident and the fight that broke out between the two race teams: “It make us look like a bunch of (idiots).

“It’s pretty embarrassing for a four-time champion to act like that,” Bowyer continued. “I barely touched him, and then I feel him get into Turn 3 and try to turn me. He missed, and then the next thing I know, Brett (Griffin, Bowyer’s spotter) is telling me on the radio that he’s waiting on me.”

Both Bowyer and Gordon were among the 12 qualifiers in this season’s Chase field, except that Gordon was in sixth and 72 points off the lead and Bowyer was in third place, 36 points off the pace, coming into the penultimate Chase race at Phoenix.

Both drivers are generally mild mannered and not considered hotheads, despite their highly competitive mental and physical makeup. It’s easy to understand, in the heat of battle, how passion and emotion can get aroused and temperament can get pushed to the edge, but what Gordon did, lying in wait to intentionally take someone out of a race who is fighting for a championship, is inexcusable, egregious behavior on the part of any driver, let alone one of the most accomplished and longtime drivers in the sport. Someone of Gordon’s standing should certainly know better and be expected to exercise more professional judgment.

NASCAR has fined Gordon $100,000, taken away 25 driver points and placed the veteran NASCAR driver and team co-owner on probation through the rest of the calendar year for his actions during Sunday’s race at Phoenix. NASCAR officials cited Section 12-1 of the stock car racing association’s rules (“actions detrimental to stock car racing”). Bowyer’s crew chief, Brian Pattie, was fined $25,000 and place on probation through Dec. 31 for his part in the garage-area mayhem.

If you ask me, the sanctions against Gordon were not severe enough given the dangerous and dishonorable nature of his actions.

Let hope lessons were learned on both sides and that we won’t see a retaliatory response from either driver when the Sprint Cup season and the 2012 Chase conclude next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

In case you missed it, Kyle Busch dominated most of the Chase race on Sunday, leading 237 of the 319 total laps, but ended up finishing third behind Harvick and second-place Denny Hamlin. Boiwyer dropped from fifth to 28th after being wrecked by Gordon. The No, 24 car wound up in 30th position.

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