During NASCAR’s 2012 campaign, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon were the protagonists for perhaps the season’s most unforgettable moment.
A year-long feud boiled over during the penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway, the crescendo coming in the closing laps as Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer (and accidently collected Joey Logano and Aric Almirola in the carnage).
Moments later, with Gordon in the middle of a donnybrook between the crews for both teams, Bowyer hopped from his disabled car and proceeded on a mad dash, sprinting down pit road before weaving through bystanders in the garage area.
Eventually, Bowyer had to be restrained at Gordon’s hauler as he threatened to slug the “Rainbow Warrior” in the nose if he stepped outside.
Bowyer and Gordon have patched things up since that melee, but the drivers’ rabid fan bases aren’t as forgiving.
Those old feelings of animus might get dredged up Friday during the NASCAR Camping World Trucks Series Toyota Tundra 250, which starts at 7:30 p.m. at Kansas Speedway.
For the first time in two seasons, Bowyer — an Emporia native — will drive in a trucks race and he’ll have the No. 24 painted on his door, a sacred number to Gordon’s fans.
“I hope I win in that darn thing, because I’ll have to come up with something clever to say,” Bowyer said by phone Friday from Talladega. “I talked to Jeff and he said he’ll be there. He was like, ‘I’m pumped. It’s going to be cool. I can’t believe you’re in the 24.’ As (angry) as his diehard fans were after that deal in Phoenix, I can’t wait to see their reaction when they see me in that 24 truck.”
Gordon, who retired last season and is now an announcer for Fox NASCAR, popularized the No. 24 during a 797-race Sprint Cup career, which started in 1992 and included 93 career wins — third in Cup Series history behind Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).
“All the rivalries and all the stuff that we’ve had over the years, we’re completely over it and laugh about it,” Bowyer said. “But his core fans and my core fans still, to this day, fight all the time over it. When his core fans find out that I’m in a 24 truck — oh, I can’t wait. It’s going to be funny.”
There’s been nothing funny about Bowyer’s 2016 season, one he’s spending in limbo.
Michael Waltrip Racing — where Bowyer spent the previous four seasons, including runner-up and seventh-place finishes in the Cup standings his first two years — dissolved around him.
Bowyer will join Stewart-Haas Racing next season, replacing team owner Tony Stewart in the No. 14 car when he retires, but for now he’s driving for HScott Motorsports as a bridge.
During the first seven races of the season, Bowyer only cracked the top 20 once and, despite two top-eight finishes in the last three races, finds himself 27th in the drivers’ points standings.
Bowyer’s never finished worse than 19th in a full-time Cup season, so it’s understandable that the No. 15 Five-Hour Energy driver and his team feel frustrated.
“Anytime that you haven’t performed the way that you’ve grown accustomed to performing, it’s frustrating,” Bowyer said. “But, as a racecar driver, you always look to yourself first — things that you could do better, things that you could do different. There are always things that you can do.”
Despite having an equipment disadvantage compared to the sport’s powerhouse teams, most notably Joe Gibbs Racing at the moment, qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup remains the goal.
Bowyer believes it might be possible to slide in Victory Lane with a fuel-mileage win or at a road-course race — particularly at Sonoma Raceway, where he’s won before — to lock himself into the playoffs.
“You’ve got to stay in the saddle,” he said. “Next year is a long ways away. The opportunity to help (current team owner) Harry Scott is what I think about every day. When I try to sleep at night, that’s what keeps me up. … We’ve just got to keep grinding and, hopefully, when it’s all said and done, we’ll be happy with the year.”
In the meantime, Bowyer’s searching for silver linings, which are easier to find after pit strategy helped him finish eighth at Bristol three weeks ago and track position led to a seventh-place finish Sunday at Talladega.
“Silver linings are the fact that the year’s young and there’s a lot of racing left, a lot of things are going to happen,” Bowyer said. “Silver linings are you’ve got good partnerships and good sponsors, good people surrounding you.”
He’d love for the season to turn around at Kansas Speedway, which holds a special place for Bowyer as his hometown track, though it’s been unkind to him lately.
During the last five Cup races in Kansas, Bowyer’s average starting position is 22nd and his average finish is 23rd.
“Before I quit this sport, I’m going to get one (Cup win) at Kansas Speedway,” Bowyer said.
Maybe the breakthrough will come this weekend. If not, he’d settled for another win in the trucks.
Bowyer — who’s only driven one trucks race in the last five seasons, when he subbed for injured John Wes Townley at Pocono in 2014 — won the June 2011 trucks race at Kansas Speedway in future Stewart-Haas teammate Kevin Harvick’s Bad Boy Buggies Chevy.
He’ll saddle up this weekend in the Maurice Gallagher Jr.-owned Georgia Boot Chevy with one goal in mind — taking the checkered flag.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Bowyer said. “I went over to the shop and they built a brand-new race truck for me. I’ve been super impressed with the effort that’s been put in and can’t wait to get back home and run that race again.”
Bowyer’s last win in any NASCAR national tour series came in a Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the fall of 2012.
While he stopped short of calling his trucks win at Kansas a career highlight, Bowyer said it’s certainly his career highlight at Kansas.
“I’ll never forget that trucks win,” Bowyer said. “It’s home, so your family and friends, my friends from high school and everybody’s there. When I won that race, it was a helluva party, so hopefully we can do it again … It would be awesome. Let’s face it; I haven’t won in a while. I don’t care what it’s in. I’m ready to win.”