By JEFF WOLFE
The climax to a good book or movie doesn’t always come at the end.
While Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race was the next to last event of the season, it will be difficult for the season finale at Homestead-Miami to have as much drama as what took place at Phoenix International Raceway.
There was a big swing in the points standings in the Chase for the Championship as Brad Keselowski heads into that final race with a 20-point lead over Jimmie Johnson.
There were lots of swings taken at each other by the pit crews of Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer.
And then there was Kevin Harvick bringing home his first checkered flag in over a year, a span of 44 races, after a weekend filled with rumors that he will be moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
But getting to that checkered flag for Harvick and the other 16 drivers who finished on the lead lap, was a bit of an adventure.
Keselowski came into the day with a seven-point deficit on Johnson as they were the two only legitimate title contenders. But when Johnson had a right-front tire go down with 77 laps remaining, it changed the entire Chase picture. Keselowski, who was challenging for the lead while Johnson was running seventh when he hit the wall, ended up with a sixth-place finish.
“Well, certainly if you have the choice you always want to be in the lead of the points, especially in the closing races, so I’m thankful for that,” Keselowski said. “But I also know that the troubles that they had are the same troubles that we could have next week, and so you try not to take anything for granted. You try to just focus on what lies ahead, and we’ve got to do the best job we can at Homestead. That’s where my focus is.”
Johnson had been focused on trying to gain some spots and maintain some type of points lead on Keselowski going into Miami, but the blown tire ended all of that.
“We were cruising along, and I think we were going to have a top 10-day, maybe a top-5 day if things worked out at the end,” said Johnson, who came into Phoenix on a two-race winning streak and is going for his sixth Sprint Cup title. “I had a slight vibration starting in the right front. I didn’t know where it was really coming from, but we know now that it was the right front. As I was coming off of Turn 4 it went down and straight in the wall it went. Another 30, 40 feet around the corner I probably would have just had a flat and not hit the wall, but where it let go, I had a direct line into the wall and knocked it down.”
Johnson’s hard hit forced him to take the car the garage area for repairs. By the time he emerged back on the track he was well over 30 laps down. He finished in 32nd, 38 laps down in what turned out to be a 319-lap race after 312 were scheduled in front of a crowd of 87,000.
The reason those extra laps were needed was because Jeff Gordon thought he needed to make a clear and definite point to Clint Bowyer. With eight laps to go, Bowyer and Gordon tapped and then replays showed Gordon appeared to try and come down to retaliate. But Bowyer got away unscathed and Gordon got into the wall, causing significant damage to his car.
Gordon, a four-time champion, was able to keep his car going at a slow rate of speed, and did not go into the pits. That’s because he was waiting for the right time to retaliate against Bowyer. The two met again on lap 311 when Gordon turned into Bowyer causing a wreck directly in front of sixth-place Joey Logano and Keselowski, who drove low to avoid the incident.
But the incident, which caused the eighth and final caution of the day, didn’t end there. Gordon drove his demolation-derby looking car back to the garage area, where shortly thereafter Gordon’s and Bowyer’s crews tried to demolish each other with their fists.
The melee lasted about five minutes and also caused a 14-minute, 58-second red flag on the track. It wasn’t the first time Bowyer and Gordon had tangled this year. Most notably it was the spring race at Martinsville where Gordon and Johnson were 1-2 on a restart, only to have Bowyer dive down low and crash all three of them. According to Gordon, that wasn’t the only incident between the two this year and the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet said he was out of patience.
“Things just got escalated over the year, and I’d just had it,” Gordon said. “Clint has 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, fed up with it and I got him back.”
Bowyer said he wasn’t intentionally trying to hit Gordon, but that the slick track contributed to them getting together in Sunday’s initial incident.
“It’s just a shame,” Bowyer said. “The last person in the world you want to get into anything with is Jeff Gordon on the race track. You’re down there racing and the track is extremely slick. We’re all on (old) tires and I didn’t even need to pass him.
“All I was doing was riding around out there and biding my time. The only thing I had to do was keep the five car within reach. So for him to act like that, I barely touched him and then, I felt him try to get into me in turn three and he missed. And then the next thing I know, (spotter) Brett (Griffin) is telling me on the radio he’s waiting on me.
“It makes us all look like a bunch of retards. It’s pretty embarrassing for a four-time champion. And from what I consider to be one of the sport’s all-time best to act like that, it’s completely ridiculous.”
Bowyer later apologized on Twitter for using “the R word.”
Keselowski, who was criticized by some for his close racing at Texas last week, wasn’t short on words when he was asked about the Gordon-Bowyer accident.
“Well, it’s the double-standard that I spent a whole week being bashed by a half a dozen drivers about racing hard at Texas and how I’m out of control and have a death wish, and then I see (expletive deleted) like that. That’s (expletive-deleted). That’s all you can call that,” said Keselowski, who took out his phone during the red flag and sent out a few tweets on Twitter. “These guys just tried to kill each other. You race hard and I get called an (expletive deleted) for racing hard and called with a death wish, and I see (expletive deleted) like that, and it just (expletive deleted) me off.
“They should be ashamed. It’s embarrassing.”
Harvick certainly wasn’t ashamed to win his first race of the season for Richard Childress Racing. He led the final 15 laps. Harvick took the lead for good from Kyle Busch, who led a race high 237 laps, when Busch chose the low side on a restart on lap 304, leaving Harvick on the high side. Once Harvick got the lead, he chose the high side on each of the final two restarts to maintain it.
“The M&M’s guys gave me an awesome piece, and unfortunately there I gave the race away,” Busch said. “You know, I hate it for my guys, and they worked so hard and they dug hard this weekend, and obviously having a car that’s the class of the field you expect to win and you’re supposed to win, but I guess I just didn’t know how to win it today.”
Just experiencing a win is something Harvick was glad to do.
By JEFF WOLFE