That was when Gordon and Bowyer feuded on the race track, igniting a scuffle between their crews and leaving a pair of wrecked race cars in their wake. Coming in the penultimate event of a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup where Bowyer was an outside title contender, stakes were raised and emotions were on edge. Hard feelings lingered into the offseason, and are still evident between the two drivers even today.
During a visit Tuesday to the NASCAR Hall of Fame -- where Gordon helped introduce a No. 24 Chevrolet Lumina from 1994 that will become part of the facility's revamped Glory Road -- the four-time series champion said the once-friendly relationship between him and Bowyer was permanently altered after the incident a year ago this week.
"That was big," Gordon said. "That was a major thing that happened between us, and a heated exchange in the hauler afterwards, too. So I don't ever think it will be quite like it was. I mean, we've spoke since, and laughed about a few things. So I'm not saying that we won't ever go have a few beers together."
The memories of that day last November are revived by NASCAR's looming return to Phoenix this weekend, when the track will host the penultimate event in a Chase where Jimmie Johnson leads Matt Kenseth by seven points. Last season Bowyer was on the fringes of title contention -- third place, 36 points off the lead -- when a series of events unfolded that left his No. 15 car a smoldering heap.
With seven laps remaining in the scheduled distance, Bowyer made contact with Gordon off Turn 2, cutting a tire on the No. 24 car and sending the vehicle up into the wall. Six laps later, Gordon spun Bowyer into the wall in an incident that also collected Joey Logano. The next week, it would become clear the hard feelings between the two drivers stretched back to a spring event at Martinsville, where Bowyer forced it three-wide on a late restart and caused an accident that took out both Gordon and Johnson.
The immediate aftermath though, was chaos. Soon the crews were rumbling in the garage area, with NASCAR officials diving in to pull bodies off one another. Gordon was immediately summoned to the NASCAR hauler. The chill between him and Bowyer was still quite evident almost a month later at Champions Week in Las Vegas. It may be a little better now, but not much.
"I certainly still relive that moment," Gordon said. "I was not proud of it. At times I wanted to take it back, at times I understood why it happened. This year, I'm just going out racing him just like everybody else. It's affected our friendship, for sure. I like Clint, he's a funny guy, a fun guy to hang out with. So we're not doing much hanging out these days. But also, I'm not there to make friends. So it's just racing as usual for me."
Prior to that incident a year ago, Gordon said he and Bowyer usually raced one another cleanly -- although the four-time champion will admit, there were times earlier in his NASCAR career where he "took advantage" of the Michael Waltrip Racing driver, Gordon said. That was what Dale Earnhardt did to him, loosening him up on occasion, racing him hard in practice, doing little things like that so the youngster knew who the veteran was.
Gordon recalls one moment particularly from the early 1990s, again at Phoenix. Earnhardt may have been faster than Gordon, but the younger driver had position, and was able to hold the No. 3 car at bay -- until the Intimidator just got fed up with it and dumped him going into Turn 3. Gordon knew it came from the right place, even if he didn't like it. Just as he's certain Bowyer didn't like it when it came time to hand a similar message down to someone else.
"It's only because I actually liked him, which was kind of odd," Gordon said. "I thought, he's a good talent, he's a good guy. But I remember things that Earnhardt did to me when I first came into the sport, and I was returning that favor. And I only did that out of respect. So he probably took that the wrong way and didn't appreciate it too much, like I didn't with Earnhardt. But that's just sort of the process. Other than that, we've always raced really well together. We're competitors. We race one another hard when we need to for good finishes."
They may be a little more than that. In a question-and-answer session with fans in the Hall of Fame's theater, Gordon was asked who his biggest rival was. The choice was clear. "I guess me and Clint Bowyer have a little bit of a rivalry now," he said.
There's been no on-track retaliation from either driver in the year since the Phoenix altercation. "He hasn't run into me. That's been a positive," Gordon said.
Clearly, though, neither has forgotten it. Asked last week if Gordon should be worried going back to the desert mile, Bowyer said, "I would be if I were him ? There's consequences that happen with everything. And you can't make a decision or a move that isn't going to come back to haunt you."
This weekend's trip to Phoenix will surely bring back memories of the episode -- not only because it's the same track one year later, but because the haulers of Gordon and Bowyer will be parked next to one another in the garage area, since the drivers are sixth and seventh respectively in owners' points. To Gordon, though, there's just one thing that would make him think about the incident.
"Only if we come off of Turn 2 and he nails me in the left rear," he said. "Then there's going to be some flashback."
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