'Scary incident' leaves NASCAR officials in tough spot
Posted November 12, 2012
It was a dust-up unlike any we've seen in NASCAR since probably the 1979 Daytona 500, when Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough tried to slug it out in the infield after both wrecked in the closing laps of the race.
Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway will go down in the NASCAR record books not just as Kevin Harvick's first win of 2012, but also a result that may potentially be overshadowed by the late-race wreck between Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer and the ensuing melee that followed.
Neither side is innocent. After the race, Gordon admitted to reporters that he intentionally wrecked Bowyer.
"Clint has run into me numerous times, wrecked me, and he got into me on the back straightaway and pretty much ruined our day," Gordon said in a story on ESPN.com. "I've had it, fed up with it, and I got him back."
Gordon's umbrage is somewhat understandable. Just a few moments earlier, Bowyer had forced Gordon into the wall, damaging the right side of his car, but not enough to cause a caution flag to be waved. Bowyer claimed it was an accident.
Two wrongs do not make a right, and when you add in a third element, three is definitely the wrong crowd to have around.
As Gordon quickly brought his heavily damaged car to pit road after wrecking Bowyer, a fracas ensued as members of Bowyer's team rushed Gordon not only for what he did to their driver – but also for effectively ending Bowyer's longshot championship hopes as well.
Gordon's crew came to their driver's rescue, covered him and kept him away from Bowyer's crew.
It was actually scary. It took NASCAR several minutes to restore order along pit road, not to mention calling the two drivers and their crew chiefs into the sanctioning body's hauler.
Gordon's admission that he had enough of Bowyer, leading him to wreck him, wasn't just a matter on Sunday – the pair have tangled several times this season.
But Sunday's dust-up, both on and off the track, leaves NASCAR with a significant dilemma.
Actually, several dilemmas.
First, because Gordon's teammate Jimmie Johnson had wrecked earlier in the race and went from a seven-point lead to a 20-point deficit to Brad Keselowski in the Sprint Cup standings leaving Phoenix, Bowyer had closed to something like 10 points or less of Johnson at the time of the run-in with Gordon.
Could Gordon's own admission that he intentionally wrecked Bowyer lead NASCAR to believe that this was more than just a matter of retaliation of season-long frustration that, coupled with the run-in they had just a few minutes earlier, that sent Gordon into attack mode?
A case could be made that given what happened to Johnson earlier in the race, and that Bowyer had been closing in on Johnson points-wise in the standings as the race wound down, that Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer to not only knock him out of the race as payback for the season, but also out of one last long shot hope at still winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
What does NASCAR do as a result?
Does it simply fine Gordon, Bowyer and his crew for all of their separate yet collective actions Sunday and then go on about the business of preparing for the season finale Sunday at Homestead?
But that leads to a potentially even greater confounding issue for NASCAR.
What happens if both Gordon and Bowyer are allowed to race at Homestead and, rather than retaliate against Gordon for what happened at Phoenix, what if Bowyer wrecks Johnson, thus depriving him of a chance at his sixth career Sprint Cup championship, essentially doing the same exact thing to Johnson's chances that Gordon did to Bowyer's chances?
Should Bowyer's crew be fined, suspended and potentially even banned for a period of time for the way several of its members rushed Gordon after Sunday's wreck?
Should Brian Pattie, Bowyer's crew chief, and team owner Michael Waltrip also be fined and/or penalized in some other fashion for failing to keep their employees – the crew members that tried to reach Gordon – under control?
And then we go back to Gordon, who publicly admitted he intentionally wrecked Bowyer. Should he be parked for Homestead too? And even though it doesn't appear he had a hand in what his driver ultimately did, should Alan Gustafson, Gordon's crew chief, also be penalized?
Wait, there's more to ponder.
Some observers might harken back to last year's fall trucks race at Texas, where Kyle Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday, effectively ending the latter's championship hopes. For his actions, Busch was banned for the remainder of that race weekend, including the marquee Sprint Cup race on that Sunday.
By parking Busch for intentionally wrecking another driver, NASCAR set a precedent. But at the same time, how does it park a four-time champ like Gordon who can make an argument that he wasn't so much covering Johnson's championship hopes when he wrecked Bowyer Sunday as he was more acting out of frustration for a season full of incidents with Bowyer?
And then there's Brad Keselowski. Even though he wasn't involved in what played out Sunday, Keselowski also figures significantly in what justice NASCAR ultimately hands out.
If NASCAR lets Gordon and Bowyer race at Homestead and Bowyer were to indeed retaliate against Johnson instead of Gordon – even if it was as much of an "accident" as Bowyer pushing Gordon into the wall Sunday prior to their big wreck -- could an argument be made that if he wins the championship, Keselowski's title would be somewhat cheapened if he wasn't able to race Johnson to the finish line fair and square?
The last thing NASCAR wants to do is make Sunday's season-ending race about a feud that spilled over from a week prior, rather than what the focus should solely be on, that of deciding a championship and crowing a new champion.
Everyone was wrong Sunday in one form or fashion: Gordon, Bowyer and Bowyer's crew.
But how can NASCAR make a decision that will both punish and appease all sides of the situation?
I don't know if it can – and that's not a knock at the sanctioning body by any means. This is the quintessential Catch-22, damned if you do and damned if you don't scenario. No matter how NASCAR officials rule, there are still going to be a lot of unhappy people.
I know I've criticized NASCAR officials in the past, but this time, they have my full empathy. I sure wouldn't want to be in their shoes with the kind of decisions they must now make.