FORT WORTH, Texas -- With television ratings sagging and empty seats a common occurrence at tracks all over the schedule, NASCAR got what it needed most Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway when Jeff Gordon assaulted Jeff Burton after the two crashed during a caution period.
Just when the sport had become predictable and stale, there's nothing like two drivers slugging it out after a crash.
Hey, it's what put NASCAR on the map in 1979, when Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison punched each other out after Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed battling for the lead on the race's final lap. That was the first race ever televised live, flag-to-flag on network television, and with much of America buried under a blizzard, it made for a dramatic day on CBS.
That was the day most of America discovered the unique sport of NASCAR -- a rough and tumble, other-side-of-the tracks sport that was revered in the South but unfamiliar to the rest of the United States. Pictures of that fight appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country. It was the match that lit the fuse of NASCAR's rocket and eventually propelled it to mainstream status.
But 31 years since that dramatic event in Daytona, NASCAR has seen its numbers dwindle in terms of interest and popularity. While they like to blame the economy for that dip, there are some in the garage area who believe fan apathy has played a role as drivers became too corporate, too mindful of the reaction from sponsors and team owners.
And no driver represented that better than Gordon, who arrived in NASCAR in 1992 with a mullet haircut and a cheesy-looking mustache but eventually transformed into the cleanest of the clean-cut images. Gordon had become the "Choir Boy" of NASCAR, but deep inside that Madison Avenue look, the former host of Saturday Night Live has a competitive fire that burns like a nuclear reactor.
That is why Sunday's meltdown was so stunning.
The "Choir Boy" rivaled NASCAR's "Bad Boy" (Kyle Busch) by attacking Burton and giving the racing series an indelible image of the season for the years to come.
The petulant Busch, of course, doesn't care what others think and was so mad after Carl Edwards jumped the restart at the end of Saturday's Nationwide Series race that he dropped an "F-bomb" during a radio interview following the race and dropped another "F-bomb" to the media when the second-place finisher came into the media center for the post-race interview.
Luckily, the seven-second delay kept the Performance Racing Network from getting an FCC fine as the profanity was bleeped out. Busch, still angry over NASCAR's loose enforcement of the rules, asked for a clarification of the restart policy in Sunday morning's driver's meeting. And Busch wasn't finished.
Early in the race, he spun out and came down pit road to change tires and make repairs. In an effort to get out ahead of the pace car, Busch was caught speeding exiting pit road and was summoned back to the pits to serve a one-lap penalty. As a NASCAR official held him in the pits with his palm up, Busch gave him the finger.
"The Bird" would prove costly to Busch as he was ordered back into the pits to serve a two-lap penalty. He stated over the team's radio that he was the only driver who "stands up to NASCAR" and said the penalty was denying him of his "First Amendment rights to free speech."
But Busch the "Bad Boy" was quickly forgotten on lap 192, when the two Jeff's tangled under yellow.
With the cars slowing down because Martin Truex, Jr. had crashed in the fourth turn, it appeared Burton had driven right into the back of Gordon's Chevrolet, pushing the four-time Cup champion into the wall. Gordon took a hard lick and it was obvious when he climbed out of his race car he was mad. Rather than get into the ambulance stationed closest to his car, he walked down to the safety vehicle in front of Burton's wrecked racer. Gordon pushed Burton and what followed was a lot of pushing, grabbing and tangling but no serious punches.
Imagine if Peyton Manning started a fight in an NFL game. Gordon's outrage was just as stunning. And to make the day even more confusing, Hendrick Motorsports pulled Jimmie Johnson's pit crew after another slow pit stop and replaced it with Gordon's over-the-wall crew in an attempt to save the championship for the No. 48. It was NASCAR's version of Donovan McNabb being benched in the final two minutes of the Washington Redskins' loss to the Detroit Lions last weekend.
This bizarre turn of events made it an amazing day for NASCAR, to say the least.
Ironically, Burton was trying to apologize to Gordon before the scuffle began. "I turned left and he turned left and we hung up and off we went," Burton said. "It was my fault, it was 100 percent my fault. I don't blame him for being mad. I would have been mad, too. He was upset and he should have been upset. I wrecked him under caution. I didn't mean to wreck, but I wrecked him under caution. I don't have a bit of problem with what he did."
After Gordon was released from the infield care center, he tried to explain his actions.
"I guess he was really frustrated with the way his car was handling or something and he just drove into my right-rear under caution," Gordon said. "Of all the people out there, I never thought that would happen with Jeff Burton. I have had a lot of respect for Jeff, but I have certainly lost a lot of respect for him today."
Nothing generates interest in NASCAR like a good, old-fashioned fight, and this was certainly a moment that sparked some excitement in a sport that sometimes gets stuck in neutral.