From fight to Fox: NASCAR rivals play nice as TV teammates

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer have no idea exactly how or when they repaired their once-fractured relationship. It was years ago and surely involved dinner and drinks.

Gordon, a four-time NASCAR champion, and Bowyer, the funniest guy in the garage, were ready to throw down following an intentional crash at Phoenix in 2012. They eventually made up, although it wasn’t a quick fix.

These days, all is forgiven. Forgotten? Not quite.

“Every time I see it, I put my head between my legs out of embarrassment,” Gordon said. “I feel like I had this amazing career and the one flaw was me losing my cool and it happened to come with a guy I enjoy hanging out with.”

“And now his co-worker!” Bowyer chimed in.

Nearly nine years after Gordon and Bowyer were involved in one of the most infamous on-track paybacks in NASCAR history — Gordon ignored a black flag and waited for Bowyer to circle the track before purposely crashing him with two laps remaining — the former rivals are now good friends and eager to share the Fox broadcast booth in 2021.

As they begin their debut week on the same team, they’re not shying away from their past. The network even featured it in a Daytona 500 preview commercial.

“We all have short fuses,” Bowyer said. “They wick up good and they blow out fast. That’s just the way it is. You’ve got another race. Something’s always next and you’ve got to brush those past instances off and be ready for the next one.”

Getting over that acrimony took time.

Gordon and Bowyer, vying for fifth place with seven laps to go, made contact shortly after a restart. Gordon brushed the outside wall and ended up with a flat tire. He made a quick pit stop, returned to the track, slowed down enough that officials flagged him and then ambushed Bowyer in the fourth turn.

“That was the real act of a champion,” Bowyer’s spotter said over the radio.

Gordon drove his mangled car to the garage. Bowyer had to stop near emergency workers because his car was on fire. Gordon climbed out of the cockpit, took off his helmet and was swarmed by Bowyer’s crew.

Gordon’s guys came to his defense, and a melee broke out. Pushing, shoving, piling on, punches, though it was quickly broken up.

Bowyer got word of what was happening and exited his car, jumped the pit road wall and started sprinting. He dodged fans, crew members and even a police officer as he bolted through the garage and to Gordon’s team hauler. NASCAR officials waited and stopped him from getting any closer.

“Hell, I about pulled a hamstring then,” Bowyer recalled. “I don’t know what I would have done had I caught him. I would have had to take a break, sit down and be like, ‘Hey, man, give me a minute. I’m about to whoop your ass as soon as I get a breath here.’”

Gordon narrowly avoided a suspension for the season finale. He was fined $100,000 and docked 25 points, which dropped him from fifth to 11th in the standings.

Days later, Gordon revealed he’d been angry with Bowyer since a race at Martinsville in April. The grudge between the two lasted months, maybe even years, and created awkward moments at championship awards events as well as a random New Year’s Eve party when they deliberately avoided each other on Diddy’s yacht.

“Just a couple of circumstances led to me just completely going red right there,” Gordon said. “I got to live with that. I’ve spent a lot of time with Clint and his wife talking about how we get past this, how will they ever forgive me? ,... We luckily have some pretty thick skin and have a good sense of humor about life.”

That explains why Gordon and Bowyer welcomed Fox’s idea to shoot a commercial about their nearly decade-old dustup. The 30-second spot starts with Gordon stepping into an elevator, seeing Bowyer trying to join him and then frantically closing the doors to avoid riding together.

Gordon flashes an evil grin as Bowyer gets shut out, prompting Bowyer to respond, “never liked him.” As Gordon takes a slow ride to the third floor, Bowyer starts running and climbing the stairs. Bowyer gets to the elevator just as it opens. Gordon exits to see Bowyer hunched over and sucking air and says, “Hey, look at you. Still trying to catch me.”

“Buddy, I ain’t got time for this,” Bowyer responds. “You’re gonna make me late.”

Bowyer hung up the helmet at the end of last season after winning 10 Cup Series races over 15 years. Fox hired him to help call nine Xfinity Series races last year, essentially asking him to take his stand-up routine from NASCAR garages to living rooms across the country. The network turned to Bowyer again when it started broadcasting iRacing events to take the place of races postponed because of the pandemic.

His self-deprecating humor was a hit. Fox executives took notice and decided to return to a three-man broadcast team.

“A huge silver lining of 2020 was Clint and Jeff and Mike doing those iRacing events,” said Brad Zager, head of production and operations at Fox Sports. “I don’t know if we’re having this conversation if that doesn’t happen last spring. It was really those events where we started to think this could be the future of our Cup Series booth.”

Now, Gordon and Bowyer are back in the spotlight and sharing takes instead of trading paint. They never actually fought, but they’re not ruling it out on the air.

“If it happens, I’m going to have to stand on top of two or three apple boxes,” the much shorter Gordon joked.

“I’m tired of 2012,” Bowyer added, referencing memes and GIFs of his garage run. “It’s time to make a new one, get some new sparks. I want to be the one that laughs this time, not the one being laughed at.”