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FORT WORTH, Texas -- Nov. 7, 2010, was a good day for NASCAR. It may well have been a landmark day.
In a time when we hear incessant complaints about boring races and vanilla drivers and runaway points championships, the Sprint Cup Series put on a show for the ages at Texas Motor Speedway.
There was anger. There were fisticuffs. There was divorce. There was bravado.
And the sport needed it. Every bit.
The drama began when Kyle Busch was cited for speeding off pit lane to beat the pace car and assessed a penalty. While serving the penalty in his pit stall, idling, Busch fired off a pair of single-digit salutes, double-barrel, Texas-style, at a NASCAR official.
It's not OK. NASCAR said its men and women work hard and fair, and deserve respect. That is unequivocally true. But right, wrong or indifference aside, many NASCAR fans understand and appreciate emotion in the moment. Just because it's childish doesn't mean we don't understand it. Many of us have been there.
It's real. NASCAR needs real.
The day ended with a furious dash to the checkers by Denny Hamlin that culminated in a gutsy (PC description) crossover move to win it, when he easily could have coasted to the points lead with a second-place effort. It was a man hell-bent to grab his title shot by the throat and squeeze. It was an offensive approach in a moment where better judgment may have suggested otherwise.
Fans appreciate that. That's what they paid 50 bucks to see.
There was a pair of soap operas to boot, one of which involved Jimmie Johnson's pit crew. They were benched on the big stage, right there in prime time for the world to see, in favor of Jeff Gordon's bunch. The 48 crew faltered one too many times, and Chad Knaus sat them. He didn't like doing it, but he's not here to run second.
"Everything's on the table," Knaus said. "If Steve Letarte can call a better race than me, I'm going to put him on my pit box."
There are two races remaining and the four-time defending champions are broken.
Johnson had no remorse, saying they're there to win a title and if anyone's feelings are hurt, too bad.
That may not have happened had Gordon not been dumped by Jeff Burton. Straight-up wrecked. Burton admitted fault, but Gordon wasn't much into hearing apologies. Gordon was so livid he exited his car, walked down the backstretch and shoved Burton. He then went for the headlock before the two were separated by NASCAR officials.
The grandstand went completely bonkers. If you didn't know better, you'd swear Junior just took the lead.
Gordon and Burton hollered at each other a little bit longer -- officials separating them all the while -- then climbed into the same ambulance for a ride to the infield hospital. Gordon said Burton did a lot of talking on that ride. He also said he didn't do much listening.
I've never seen Gordon come unglued like that. To me, he was much madder this go-round than he was at Matt Kenseth in Bristol a couple of years back.
And if you'd told me Sunday morning that two NASCAR drivers would get in a fight, those are the last two I'd expect.
It was awesome. Gordon said he was glad he had that long walk down the backstretch. Had Burton been closer, Gordon said he'd have done something he regretted. Gordon said he wanted to "do more" but thought better of it. He wasn't the least bit ashamed for anything he did.
He shouldn't be. It was raw, real emotion, uninhibited by the corporate conscience.
Back in 1979, a fight between Cale Yarborough and the Alabama Allisons helped catapult NASCAR into mainstream relevance.
Who knows? Maybe we'll look back someday at this brisk night in Texas and think Gordon and Burton helped keep it there.