NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon (24) tangles with rival Clint Bowyer late in the… (Tom Pennington / Getty Images…)
AVONDALE, Ariz. — — There was talk this year about whether NASCAR was becoming a tad boring, with too little passing, too few wrecks, too many colorless drivers and clean-cut Jimmie Johnson seemingly marching to yet another title.
The nondescript first half of Sunday's race seemed to buttress that argument. Although NASCAR had once urged its drivers to "have at it" on the track, they appeared inclined to have little of it.
That is, until bedlam erupted at Phoenix International Raceway.
By the time the smoke literally cleared and Kevin Harvick had won the race, the sellout crowd of 87,000 had witnessed the following:
—Jeff Gordon being shoved away for his safety as his crew members and those of Clint Bowyer brawled in the garage after Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer.
—A furious Bowyer charging toward Gordon's transporter truck in search of Gordon until Bowyer was restrained.
—Several cars, including Danica Patrick's, spinning and crashing behind Harvick as they all crossed under the checkered flag in a two-lap overtime finish.
—And another wreck that had seriously damaged Johnson's hopes for a sixth championship.
"There at the end, I've never seen a finish like that, ever," Carl Edwards said after finishing 11th. "It was just chaos."
Sunday's AdvoCare 500 was the next-to-last race of the season, and Johnson arrived with a seven-point lead over Brad Keselowski in the Sprint Cup Series standings.
But on Lap 234 of the race's scheduled 312 laps, as Keselowski was battling for the lead and Johnson was running seventh, the right front tire failed on Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet, sending it into the wall.
After extensive repairs, Johnson rejoined the race but finished 32nd to drop 20 points behind Keselowski in the standings ahead of Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway.
"I just hate for our day to turn out as it did," a stoic Johnson said after he climbed from his car. "We still have to go to Homestead and race, and anything can happen down there."
Keselowski finished sixth after threading his No. 2 Dodge through the cars crashing at the end.
Keselowski can clinch his first Sprint Cup title at Homestead-Miami if he finishes 15th or better, even if he doesn't lead a lap and regardless of how Johnson finishes.
"I wanted to take the points lead by winning a race and not relying on a failure," Keselowski said of Johnson's setback. "But sometimes that's not how the sport works and you have to accept that."
Then a visibly angry Keselowski added: "I'm more just disappointed in the quality of racing that we saw today."
Gordon, a four-time champion, had been annoyed with Bowyer's driving for some time. As Sunday's race neared its end, Gordon's car was hit by Bowyer's and Gordon then waited until Bowyer came around and wrecked him.
"I'd just had it," Gordon said after walking out of a meeting with NASCAR officials. "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 got him back."
Asked whether he expected to be penalized, Gordon replied: "They've got to do what they've got to do, and I guess I had to do what I had to do."
After Gordon parked in the garage following his crash with Bowyer, Bowyer's crew members charged toward Gordon. As both drivers' crews began fighting, one crew member put his arms around Gordon and led him away from the brawl.
Bowyer, parked on pit road, jumped out and sprinted a few hundred yards to the garage. He ran up to Gordon's transporter, where the drivers typically retreat after a race, but was held back by a NASCAR official.
"It's pretty embarrassing for a four-time champion, and what I consider one of the best this sport's ever seen, to act like that," Bowyer said. "I literally barely rubbed him and then all of a sudden I feel him trying to retaliate."
Bowyer started the race third in the points with an outside shot at the title. But after his 28th-place finish Sunday, he was eliminated from contention.
For Harvick, the victory ended a winless streak at 44 races. Denny Hamlin finished second and Kyle Busch, who led a race-high 237 laps, was third.
Harvick has had his share of skirmishes with other drivers as well and, when asked about the garage brawl, said, "Fights are what made NASCAR what it is."