Jeff Gordon needs to watch his back at all times. Not only here in Daytona, but everywhere. Clint Bowyer is plotting bad things.
“One of these days, I’ll be able to drag him out in the middle of nowhere and leave him for dead,” Bowyer said. “Oh, it’s written down. It’s on paper. It’s in the folder. There is a Gordon folder.”
Bowyer, a man with a wicked sense of humor, is kidding. We think.
Gordon and Bowyer share a folder of contentious interactive experiences. Simply put, they kept slamming into each other’s cars during the 2012 season. Bowyer wrecked Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson to win at Martinsville, Va. Then in Phoenix, Gordon ran Bowyer down and intentionally spun him, ruining Bowyer’s championship aspirations. A brawl between the teams ensued afterward.
This Sunday, the focus shifts away from Bowyer and Gordon, now retired and in the Fox Sports broadcast booth, to Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth. They will race in the Daytona 500, either as happy campers who have moved on from their prickly dust-ups in 2015, or in search of more payback and peril.
“I don’t think you’ll ever take your eye off that,” said Larry McReynolds, Fox Sports analyst. “Matt seems to carry a grudge a long time. I know he’s saying that he’s brushed it under the rug. I don’t think they will ever speak to each other again. They are both very bitter because each thinks the other cost the other a shot at the championship.”
To review, Logano nudged Kenseth out of the way to win at Kansas. Kenseth took out Logano when Kenseth had no shot to win at Martinsville. NASCAR suspended Kenseth for two races for crossing the line of acceptable pushback. The carnage was significant: The drivers — who both qualified for the championship Chase format — wrecked each other out of a shot at a title.
“You have to have enough self-control to know that when you’re in a car in Martinsville that’s nine laps down, and you take out the guy who was leading the race and probably could have won the championship, that’s just bad judgment,” said Darrell Waltrip, a NASAR Hall of Famer and now a colleague of McReynolds at Fox.
Wreckin’ had always been part of racin’. It elevated NASCAR from a Southern passing fancy to a national spotlight during the 1979 Daytona 500. Rasslin’ was added to the mix when Donnie Allison, brother Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough duked it out on the backstretch at the end of the race before the CBS TV cameras.
What’s not to like about punching, kicking, choking and flying helmets?
Things have calmed down considerably, with nothing quite so epic, but the Kenseth-Logano deal escalated the conversation again about that delicate balance between competitive fire and pushing the bounds of ethical behavior.
Now it’s time to hit the reset button. Or maybe not. Things are still a little chilly between Kenseth and Logano. But did they listen? Did they learn?
“Both of those guys can look back and look at the year and say, ‘You know what, I probably could have won the championship,’” said Rusty Wallace, retired and now a NASCAR Hall of Famer. “‘I let my temper get to me, and it cost him and it cost me. If I hadn’t bumped Kenseth and knocked him sideways in Kansas I wouldn’t have this problem going into Martinsville.’”
For their part, Kenseth and Logano are saying all the right things in what’s been a hot topic of conversation in the short off-season.
“The biggest challenge is that I get asked about it at stuff like this, but as soon as everybody stops asking about it, it will be easier,” Kenseth said during the annual NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte in January. “I don’t mean to be a smart-ass at all. I think it’s in the rear-view mirror and you try to move forward. It’s a new season. You start with a slate basically clean, and you try to race everybody fair. And hopefully they race you fair.”
Logano? He tried to make nice in Homestead, Fla., the final race of the season, when both drivers were in for what amounted to be a ride-along deal.
“I would say we are at a neutral spot. To be honest with you, what we talked about at Homestead last year I felt like I got everything off my chest and hopefully he did. I don’t know if he did or not but I feel like I have a clear conscious and I am moving forward.”
Talking it out is always therapeutic, whether it’s couples counseling or two drivers who once wanted at each other in a bad way. Bowyer and Gordon have tried to find some peaceful middle ground by talking it out over the last few years.
“While I regretted it, the way I went about that, I worked as hard as I could because of our friendship to try to regain some respect back and explain to him the way I felt,” Gordon said. “That’s not just a conversation. That’s not two conversations. That’s 15-20-30 conversations and probably over a few beers as well.”
Gordon is probably safe, though if anything happens to him we will all know who the prime suspect will be immediately.
As for Kenseth and Logano, there are 36 points races in the season, starting Sunday. In the context of Facebook world, we can all agree that their relationship is complicated.
“It never really goes away,” Gordon said. “All it takes is something to spark it and blow it up again.”