Despite all the complaints you might see on Twitter about the travel, antiquated media centers and crappy track food, here's a dirty little secret about covering NASCAR: It can actually be a blast sometimes.
Sunday, as you might imagine, was one of those days. Phoenix was a chaotic, wild, crazy mess to try and sort out – but it sure was fun.
Everyone who was there has a story of what they saw or how they saw it happen, so here's mine.
With three laps to go, I assumed Kevin Harvick was going to win and thus the big story of the race would be Jimmie Johnson's crash earlier in the race. NASCAR had announced in the drivers meeting it would stop the top three championship contenders on pit road, which meant Johnson would park there and do his post-race interview.
As a reporter, you have to prioritize on what angles you want to hit after the race. Those who follow the coverage here know I usually opt for a story other than someone in the top three, since those drivers are brought into the media center for interviews (and every word gets transcribed and distributed).
Johnson's title hopes ending seemed like the most important angle, so that was my plan. But just as I walked down pit road and looked up at the Sprint Vision screen, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer crashed at that very second.
It was interesting, but not enough to change my plan from getting Johnson first (I had no idea it was retaliation; I just thought it was a normal crash). Plus, I was pretty sure I'd seen the white flag waving, so I assumed Harvick would take the checkered flag under caution and the race was over.
Then, all of the sudden, the crowd let out a huge cheer. Startled, I looked back at the Sprint Vision screen, and there was a brawl in the garage area. Whoa! I quickly realized there was more to the Gordon/Bowyer wreck than I thought.
Frozen, I hesitated and wasn't quite sure where to go. Should I ditch the Johnson interview and go follow the garage fight? Or was that not important enough?
Just when I was considering a Plan B, a crazy thing happened. The Sprint Vision screen showed an overhead shot of Clint Bowyer running toward an area that had a Sprint Vision screen much like the one I was watching.
Suddenly, the gears in my slow brain turned a little faster: That was the screen I was watching!
I looked down just in time to see a streak of red zoom past me and make a left turn down the alley that led to the garage area. Bowyer!
If you fast forward to the 2:20 mark of this video, you'll see what I mean. A bunch of us dummies are standing there looking up at the screen while Bowyer runs right past everyone:
At that point, I was all in for the Bowyer/Gordon story. I took off sprinting after him down the alley – kind of a path leading to the garage between two chain-link fences – and it was totally surreal, because a bunch of other people had the same idea.
I'd like to see a different overhead shot for sure, but it felt like there were two dozen people sprinting after Bowyer en route to the garage. And I mean sprinting! It was sort of like a faster version of everyone following Forrest Gump on his run across the country, or maybe the opening scene of Austin Powers where Mike Myers runs down the street while being chased by a huge crowd (just without the group dance at the end).
Once I got to the garage, it was pretty chaotic. I couldn't tell who was fighting who, where the drivers were, where anyone else was or what was happening. There were Maricopa County Sheriff's deputies all over the place – I have no idea how Sheriff Joe's boys got there so fast – and you don't want to mess with them, lest you end up in a tent camp wearing pink underwear.
The still-bubbling emotions of crew guys itching to show their intent on defending their drivers was evident, and media scrambled to interview Gordon's defiant crew chief Alan Gustafson and Bowyer's disgusted team owner Michael Waltrip.
Bowyer was ushered into his hauler and Gordon was kept inside his, presumably for their own safety. When Bowyer and his entourage emerged to walk back to pit road, he turned the corner toward the track and the crowd erupted in cheers. The fans were loving every second of it.
Heck, so was I. Am I allowed to say that? Maybe not, but I'm saying it. It was fun to be in the middle of all that madness.
I'm not condoning using cars to retaliate – especially against a championship contender – and I think Gordon deserves to get suspended for his actions. But to see the drivers and crews show some emotion? That's awesome.
Fans want to root for drivers who care as much about the sport as they do; similarly, it's a lot more fun for reporters to cover athletes who have passion rather than those who seem to be going through the motions.
All too often this season, NASCAR has seemed stale and there's been a lack of that passion – at least on public display.
It was back on Sunday, though, and that was clear for all the world to see. The delightful madness made for an unforgettable experience.
More on the Gordon/Bowyer incident at Phoenix: