Matt York/Associated Press
AVONDALE, Ariz. – When the fighting stopped, the oil had dried and the last of the wrecked cars had been towed away, Brad Keselowski found himself on the brink of a first Sprint Cup title for himself and team owner Roger Penske.
Only he wasn’t in a celebratory mood.
He entered Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway trailing five-time champion Jimmie Johnson by seven points and had the better car all day. And moments after Keselowski raced his way into the lead, a blown tire caused Johnson to crash and take his battered car to the garage for repairs.
“I wanted to take the points lead by winning a race and not relying on a failure,” Keselowski said.
It was just the beginning of the drama in the most chaotic race of the year.
One many fans likely will call the best of the season.
Perhaps for all the wrong reasons, and that’s what had Keselowski so upset.
“I’m more just disappointed in the quality of racing that we saw,” he said. “I thought it was absolutely ridiculous, and I was ashamed to be a part of it.”
Kevin Harvick snapped a 44-race losing streak by beating Kyle Busch on a pair of late restarts and crossing the finish line ahead of a melee that broke out because NASCAR failed to throw a final caution flag for an oil spill on the track.
It was the final exclamation point in a sequence that included Jeff Gordon slowing his car on the track to wait for Clint Bowyer so he could wreck him intentionally as retaliation for several weeks of on-track contact between the two.
It led to a full brawl inside the garage between the crews for the two drivers, with Bowyer sprinting from his car to join the fracas.
He was held back by NASCAR officials from entering Gordon’s hauler.
“It’s pretty embarrassing,” Bowyer said. “For a four-time champion, and what I consider one of the best this sport’s ever seen to act like this is pretty ridiculous.”
Both drivers and their crew chiefs were called to the NASCAR hauler for a meeting with series officials, and police officers stood outside on guard.
Gordon said he’s had problems with Bowyer all season and had reached his limit.
“Things just got escalated over the year, and I’d just had it,” he 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.”
He said he didn’t know what penalties might be coming from NASCAR.
“They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do, and I guess I had to do what I had to do,” he said.
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said the situation would be examined further this week.
“That was surely a shame,” he said. “We’ll continue to try to get everybody back calmed down and back to a working situation.”
But Keselowski was livid, questioning the double-standard a week after he was criticized for racing hard on the final restarts against Johnson last week at Texas.
He could have wrecked Johnson for the victory, and three years ago he might have done just that. But Keselowski was only aggressive – yet clean – and even after losing the race was condemned by some of his fellow competitors.
Three-time champion Tony Stewart said Keselowski had “a death wish” and Kyle Busch felt some drivers wouldn’t give Keselowski a break on the track because he raced Johnson too hard on the last restart.
“It’s the double standard that I spent a whole week being bashed by a half-dozen drivers about racing hard at Texas and how I’m out of control and have a death wish,” he said.
“These guys just tried to kill each other ... they should be ashamed. It’s embarrassing.”