When Jeff Gordon wrecked Clint Bowyer last week at Phoenix, setting off a brawl in the garage, it seemed to be a simple case of retaliation.
But the emotions leading up to the incident – which date back to the spring – were deeper than many people may have realized.
Most race fans remember when Clint Bowyer wrecked Gordon and Jimmie Johnson on the final restart at Martinsville when the Hendrick Motorsports teammates were leading the race and close to securing Hendrick's 200th win.
They may not have understood just how much the victory would have meant to team owner Rick Hendrick – and how much it hurt him to lose it.
That day, Hendrick had some special guests at the track – relatives of victims who had been killed in the 2004 Hendrick plane crash near Martinsville. It was their first time back at the track, and Hendrick wanted to win "more than anything – more than any championship."
When Bowyer wrecked Gordon and Johnson – he had fresher tires and dove underneath both drivers entering Turn 1 – Hendrick was deeply affected. The team owner said Friday the pain he felt was worse than the highs of winning some championships.
"I have never hurt as bad in my life leaving the racetrack as I did that day," he said. "It took me a week or so to get over it. That's emotions we carry and nobody else. I think that situation, along with some other things that happened along the way, you don't forget it."
Gordon, who Hendrick said is "like a son" to him, shared some of that emotion. And as the season progressed, less obvious incidents apparently occurred between the two drivers.
It was enough for Gordon to feel Bowyer "needed to be dealt with." The result was an incident which ended Bowyer's championship hopes.
"It just wasn't very smart of Clint to run into me coming off Turn 2 on the straightaway and almost cut my left-front tire down and know we have past history this year," Gordon said. "Afterward, did it sit well with me knowing that took his hopes out? No. He's also a guy I would consider a friend. There's a lot of things that didn't sit well with me after the fact. But at the moment, it's hard to kind of bring all that into your mind.
"I lost control of my emotions and it put me into a decision that obviously wasn't a good one."
Gordon said he regretted other drivers were collected in the wreck – Joey Logano is still angry at his childhood hero – and wished he'd have collected his emotions enough to save the retaliation for another time.
"Definitely not one of my proudest moments," he said. "I also kind of understand what led up to it."
But there were some positives. For one, it showed showed Gordon's fans he still has the passion and fire to compete for a championship "in a big way," he said. It also was a sign other drivers are not "going to be messing with me for a little while."
"That message was sent pretty clear," he said.
Perhaps the most surprising comment from Gordon was his insistence he didn't mean to wreck Bowyer. Angry after the contact, Gordon said he wanted to "make (Bowyer's) life really miserable and make my car really, really wide" – but not end up in a crash.
"I wasn't expecting him to go diving inside down on the apron," Gordon said. "When he did, it caused us to hook and caused what ended up being a terrible accident."
Gordon also said he wasn't expecting to be suspended, though he knew there would be fines and penalties. This weekend is important for sponsor DuPont, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary with Gordon and had planned a special paint scheme on the car for months.