As the fists flew, crews battled and drivers talked tough, it was like NASCAR found a time machine buried in the Phoenix desert and took a trip back to the days when those things were the norm and not the exception.
In spite of an era featuring unprecedented competitiveness, where more cars are contending for wins on a weekly basis than ever before, there has been one common complaint among fans both old and new: Where are the great rivalries that once defined this sport?
Fair or not, the perception among many is that drivers are too buddy-buddy with one another. And when flares of animosity do pop up, they're quickly extinguished, whether it's due to overzealous sponsors concerned that warring drivers might hurt their corporate image or NASCAR quickly stepping in to maintain the peace.
Talk to a longtime fan and he or she will wistfully recall the days when a favorite driver didn't have to mind his P's and Q's and could openly vent contempt for their counterparts. The belief is rivalries like the Allisons vs. Yarborough, Waltrip vs. Petty and Earnhardt vs. Everyone have all fallen by the wayside.
But for one day, in a race that seemed destined to be remembered as the event where the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship was decided, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer staged war upon one another, seemingly out of nowhere. And in doing so, the pugilists reminded everyone why open animosity is good.
For one day anyway, Gordon shed his "corporate" image and showed he's fully capable of getting down and dirty. Conversely, Bowyer put aside his playful, fun-loving demeanor and showed he can get tough when so required.
Although no one wants to see weekly full-scale brawls erupt between warring pit crews, every once in a while that burning hot intensity needs to overflow. If that means drivers and crew members squaring off on occasion, well, then so be it. Because the sport of racing in all forms thrives when high-profile drivers hold open contempt for one another; it makes the competition better, fans more interested and adds a layer of intrigue that can't be replicated.
And if an offending party steps over the ever-moving line of what's acceptable behavior on the track and in the garage, then it is NASCAR's job to hand down a fitting punishment down on the offending party – just as NASCAR did a year ago when Kyle Busch was parked a race for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. or when Kurt Busch was sat in June for threatening a reporter.
The caveat in all this, however, is that there is a line that under no circumstances should be crossed. And that line was one Gordon stepped over when he took it upon himself to play the role of judge, jury and executioner.
Defend it all you want to, but in no way, shape or form should the intentional wreck of a competitor be allowed.
If Gordon had an issue with how Bowyer was racing him, then he should have found him in the garage and settled their dispute man-to-man – just as rivalries back in the day were so frequently resolved. But spinning a driver deliberately is unacceptable; especially so because in the aftermath, two other drivers (Joey Logano and Aric Almirola) who had no dog in the fight saw their respective good runs come to end.
Gordon may go down in the record books as the best driver of his generation, but what he did Sunday crossed a line that should never be crossed – no matter how entertaining the aftermath may have been and the much-needed spark it provided.