When Jeff Burton wrecked Jeff Gordon under caution at Texas Motor Speedway last November, the wreck wasn’t the highlight that most people saw.
Instead, it was the shoving and scuffling that ensued between the two drivers after Burton spun Gordon into the wall, knocking them both out of the race. Burton said that it wasn’t intentional, claiming that he was trying to pull alongside Gordon to apologize for accidentally running into him earlier when their cars accidentally hooked together under caution. Gordon promptly dismissed that explanation.
The Sprint Cup Series returns to Texas this weekend for the first time since the infamous tussle and the highlight of the scrap – during which Gordon shoved Burton and took a swing at him – likely will be shown again and again.
“That certainly was unforgettable for me,” Burton said.
It was unforgettable because Burton probably still can’t figure out how the whole thing happened.
“We've laughed about it several times,” Burton said earlier this season. “It was something in my career that I'm not proud of. At the same time, after it all went down, I thought I did all I could do to man up and be a man about it. That's really all I can do.”
It also was unforgettable for many other drivers who saw either the scuffle on the track or the highlights afterward. Gordon got out of his car after the crash, walked toward Burton on the apron of Turn 2 and immediately shoved him, leading to the brief tussle.
The other drivers enjoyed it, at least in part, because it didn’t involve them.
“I know Burton always kind of laughed at me, and even Gordon, he would always kind of give me the shot in the ribs saying that was pretty fun to watch yesterday,” said Kevin Harvick, Burton’s Richard Childress Racing teammate.
“To see those guys have to answer those questions at driver intros and things like that is fun because they really don’t know what to say other than it happens sometimes. So that part makes me laugh still to this day when I think back about the moment.”
It wasn’t Gordon’s first shoving match. He shoved Matt Kenseth on pit road at Bristol in 2006 and reportedly once punched another driver at an airport after a race.
“He’s gotten out and pushed a few people around, so it’s kind of funny,” said Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. “I know he’s actually landed a punch in the past, too, so I was proud of that one more than anything.
“He was certainly upset when things took place and he marched himself down the race track. I’m sure he takes it back a little bit, I’m sure he would rather have thrown a punch than sat there pushing. Obviously, it was the wrong thing to do on national television. I just kind of laugh about it. I think he does as well.”
While fans might not expect such an incident between the two mild-mannered veteran drivers, it wasn’t a total surprise for at least some of Gordon’s competitors.
“We’ve seen Jeff, [when] he’s upset with you, he’ll let you know,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., also a teammate of Gordon’s at Hendrick Motorsports. “We saw him do that with Burton and Matt. I wasn’t at all surprised at what I was watching.
“But it was exciting, I think – a race story for the week. Sometimes, man, you just get so mad, you’ve got to go handle it. You’ve got to go handle your business.”
Fans obviously loved it.
“This is racing,” said Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards. “I think we’ve got guys that are passionate about the sport and guys that care about racing. We put everything on the line.
“The fans want to see guys that are passionate about racing and passionate about what they do and every once in a while you’re going to see stuff like that. I think that’s just the sport and, yeah, those would have been about the last two guys I would have expected, but I think that made for a great story that day and I respect the heck out of both of those guys.”
But do Gordon and Burton respect each other?
They do, but in Gordon’s mind, he’ll always wonder why the accident happened.
“Jeff has always been a great competitor and a fast driver and somebody that pretty much leaves his talking to what he does on the race track,” Gordon said. “He’s a guy who has a really good opinion and point of view on this sport and things that have happened in this sport over the years. He and I have always gotten along good. Right up until that moment in Texas, I feel like Jeff and I always had a lot of respect for one another.
“Obviously there was respect that was lost. I still to this day will never understand why it happened. But at the same time I do like Jeff a lot and look forward to racing with him a lot more in the future.”
Burton said he can count on one hand the times he’s had problems with Gordon.
“It didn't bother me that he wanted to fight about it,” Burton said. “Hell, I didn't blame him. If I was him, I'd want to fight about it, too. I never once felt bad about that. I don't. The fact that two 40-year-olds care about what they do, have a passion for it, that's a great thing.
“Richard Petty told me, ‘When you quit caring, you need to quit.’ Part of that was cool because it showed everybody, even though we've been doing it for a long time, we both care a great deal, we both have a fire and a passion. But the part of actually how we got there wasn't cool at all.”