Infuriated, Clint Bowyer scrambled from the cockpit of his mangled Chevrolet and sprinted through the Phoenix garage area last Sunday as if he had overdosed on 5-Hour Energy.
Members of Bowyer’s crew already had launched a full-blown assault on their counterparts on the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. But Bowyer wanted a piece of its driver, Jeff Gordon.
Stand in line, Clint.
Lots of folks want a piece of Gordon, still, just not with clenched fists. His popularity with sponsors and manufacturers off the track has not ebbed with his recent results.
Hard to imagine, Gordon turned 41 in August. Harder to imagine, 11 years have flown by since his last of four NASCAR Sprint Cup championships.
But he remains one of auto racing’s most famous and marketable figures and, if any doubt had begun creeping in, one of its most motivated and competitive.
Still in focus
Again Sunday in the Ford EcoBoost 400 finale to Gordon’s 19th full season, the driver once known as “Wonder Boy” must settle for a secondary role.
The tight focus will target Brad Keselowski, a bold and boisterous 28-year-old pursuing his first Sprint Cup title, and Jimmie Johnson attempting to dash Keselowski’s dreams and claim his sixth.
But Gordon, who has not arrived at Homestead with a serious title shot since 2007, will command constant attention from ESPN cameras, as will Bowyer.
Gordon overreacted to NASCAR’s “Boys, have at it” encouragement of old-style rivalries to the tune of a $100,000 fine assessed this week for his retaliatory, admittedly intentional and brawl-inducing crash into Bowyer.
Bowyer, a winner three times in a breakout year, had ruined Gordon’s day when he slid up into him enough to cut Gordon’s left rear tire.
Feelings were rubbed raw. Emotional wounds won’t heal quickly. Grudges won’t be easily dismissed. And because any rematch between Gordon and Bowyer could indirectly imperil Keselowski and Johnson, their actions any time they’re in proximity on the track will be scrutinized and analyzed.
Gordon’s fit of pique even inspired far-fetched conspiracy theories, since Bowyer appeared destined to come to Homestead retaining a slim mathematical shot at the title had he finished the race in the top 10, where he raced most of the day.
Gordon, of course, not only is teammate to Johnson but listed owner on the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet in which Johnson strung together his five championships from 2006 through 2010.
But Bowyer did, in fact, spin Gordon out of a probable Martinsville, Va., victory on April Fools’ Day this year, and a frustrated Gordon believes Bowyer has raced him recklessly two or three times since.
The normally affable and accessible Bowyer has clammed up at Homestead, uncharacteristically shunning media overtures. But Gordon carried through on a 20-year promotion of his career-long relationship with DuPont on Friday and spoke openly and candidly about his frustration a week ago.
He’s not impervious to growing skepticism that he ever will achieve championship form on an intensely competitive stage again. Indeed, he’s not the only headliner reduced to also-ran status by Johnson.
Yes, the 2001 to 2010 decade belonged to Johnson. But Gordon’s stamp on the 1990s in ways was even more emphatic. Between 1995 and 1999, the No. 24 coasted into victory lane 47 times. He reached double figures in victories three times in that span.
“I look back at the wins and the championships and the way things were going, and there was no stopping us,” he said.
By contrast, he has only five victories over the past five seasons. It’s easy to draw a conclusion that contentment away from the track with wife Ingrid and children Ella and Leo has mellowed him to the point he is not as driven as he was in his 20s.
Gordon actually concurred, to a point. “I feel like one thing that maybe I haven’t done enough is show the fire inside me” to still desire not just victories but championships, he said.
He expressed regrets Friday that his anger at Bowyer caught up Joey Logano and Aric Almirola in the crash. He admitted his emotions got the best of him.
But if the Phoenix sheet-metal combat served no other purpose, it sent a reminder that Gordon is not of a mood to fade away into the sunset.
“I don’t think [rivals] are going to be messing with me for a little while,” he said. And he wasn’t grinning when he said it.