Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway ended up creating more stories than almost any race in recent memory.
It was a fast paced race that really did not seem to have anything that special to it until championship leader Jimmie Johnson melted a bead on his right-front tire with 77 laps left in the scheduled 312. He was running in the top 10 at the time and at worst looked like he would leave Phoenix either just ahead of Brad Keselowski or very close behind heading to the season finale at Miami-Homestead next week. Johnson ended up finishing in 32nd place which was one spot higher than it looked like he would be able to finish at the time his No. 48 team got him back on the track. That was because of the bizarre events that occurred which ended up extending the race to 319 laps which was long enough to allow Johnson to complete one more lap than David Ragan.
The extension of the race was the result of the retaliation Jeff Gordon dished out to Clint Bowyer. After a late race restart Bowyer got into Gordon's left rear tire down the backstretch battling for a top 5 spot which angered Gordon, especially because of all the contact that Bowyer has had with Gordon this season. Most notably when Bowyer wrecked Gordon at Martinsville on a late restart when Gordon was leading. Gordon then seemed to try to retaliate and take out Bowyer but ended up getting himself crossed up and slammed the outside wall with his right rear mostly. Gordon's car then slowed dramatically.
As Kevin Harvick was coming around to take the white flag NASCAR had black flagged Gordon for not maintaining the minimum speed. Instead of adhering to the penalty though Jeff took one more swipe at Clint as the two were in the middle of Turns 3 and 4. This time the No. 24 slammed the No. 15 hard and forced Bowyer directly into Joey Logano's path where those two cars collide before Gordon also slammed up into the two again. Keselowski, who was poised to take a big lead in the points to Homestead next week, narrowly escaped Gordon's anger move and avoided being swept up in the mess. Aric Almirola also got turned in the aftermath of cars trying to check up and connected heavily with Logano's No. 20.
NASCAR immediately ruled that Havick had not taken the white flag meaning the race would be extended to a green-white-checkered situation. But more on that later.
All of the sudden TV cameras switched to the garage area where Clint Bowyer's 5-hour Energy team was in what amounted to an all-out brawl with Jeff Gordon and his Drive to End Hunger crew. It was hard to tell exactly who was involved and what types of blows landed but the crowd at Phoenix International Raceway was going crazy. Then the cameras switched to Bowyer exiting his No. 15 car that was moments earlier on fire. He was on a dead sprint, looking more like Usain Bolt than a racecar driver, to get his fists into the fight that was occurring in the garage near the haulers. By the time Bowyer got there Gordon was already in his hauler and a NASCAR official physically kept Bowyer at bay. The crowd was still as noisy as ever.
Meanwhile as things settled down in the back the red flag was out to clean up the mess and the story switched back to the race at hand still. ESPN interviewed Richard Childress the car owner for Kevin Harvick. He complained that NASCAR threw the caution too soon and that Harvick should have been given the white flag meaning the race would have been official. Replays clearly showed that the yellow caution lights were on before Harvick crossed the start finish line. With the events that would then occur on the green-white-checkered finish it is understandable why NASCAR threw the caution for the wreck between Gordon and Bowyer as quickly as they did.
Harvick, who Childress said was low on fuel, would have to get through one last restart with a strong Kyle Busch right alongside. Harvick got a good restart again and pulled away but once again right before he was ready to take the white flag, Jeff Burton got into the back of Danica Patrick and turned her No. 10 into the outside wall enetring Turn 3. NASCAR this time did not throw the caution right away and Harvick took the white. NASCAR still did not throw the yellow as Patrick drove away and tried to limp back around. Meanwhile her Chevrolet was leaking some sort of fluid and laid it all over the exit of Turn 4 setting up a closing lap almost as thrilling as what occurred on the oiled down Watkins Glen track earlier this season.
Harvick was the first to slide in it but was able to maintain control and take the checkered flag. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Kasey Kahne also made it through to the finish. Then Ryan Newman spun and Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch slammed the outside wall hard. Busch bounced off into Brad Keselowski damaging the No. 2, but Brad was able to keep his Dodge straight and finish sixth. Busch and Paul Menard then made heavy contact with Newman's spinning car and then pounded into the almost stopped car of Patrick who was just beyond the start-finish line. Newman then made more hard contact with Mark Martin. It was a scary incident that had a lot of heavy and nasty looking hits.
The crash could have been avoided if NASCAR would have stuck to their guns and thrown the caution when Patrick spun. By seemingly giving into the whining of Childress they created a dangerous situation for the drivers on the track.
By surviving the carnage and finishing in sixth Keselowski is able to take a 20 point lead to Homestead over Jimmie Johnson, who is the only other driver still mathematically with a chance at the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship. Keselowski can lock up his first title with a finish of 15th or better.
For Harvick, who we learned was going to be leaving RCR after 2013 for Stewart-Haas Racing earlier in the weekend, it was his first Sprint Cup Series win in 44 races. He was an unlikely winner because of how much his No. 29 team has struggled in 2012. He and the team did seem to have the fastest car over the closing laps though and earned the victory flat out.
On Monday NASCAR fined Gordon $100,000 for his retaliation on Bowyer. But Gordon was not fazed by it and really shouldn't be. His words say it best.
"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. "I've had it, fed up with it, and I got him back." Then to the question of worrying about a fine or suspension Gordon said, "They've got to do what they've got to do, and I guess I had to do what I had to do."
Clearly Gordon had had enough of Bowyer's antics. Was it the right time to exact revenge? Everyone will have their opinion on that. It seems to make sense to exact revenge in the same race and in the heat of the moment than doing it at later race just because you have it in your back pocket.
Bowyer did not rule out wrecking Gordon at Homestead in the season finale when asked about it after the race which will make for a suspenseful end to the 2012 season. Keselowski will need to not have any issues and hope that he doesn't get caught up in someone else's mess. If he does that he will be the next Sprint Cup Series Champion.
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