Jeff Gordon vs. Jeff Burton: Is it over?
LOS ANGELES -- The lights in the lounge of the posh West Hollywood hotel were low, and a young woman in a long gown was singing softly a few feet away. The mood was relaxed, and so was the conversation.
Then the topic of last year's skirmish between Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton at Texas Motor Speedway came up. More importantly, the topic of how Burton believes through a few conversations that the drivers are on the same page and that Gordon no longer believes Burton "took him out on purpose."
Gordon's voice raised an octave higher than that of the singer.
"No, no," the four-time Sprint Cup champion said two weeks ago. "That's where he was mistaken. I think he absolutely lost his mind for a split second. He has no explanation for what happened. I mean, he's saying, 'I don't know what happened. I don't know how it happened.'
"I'm sitting here going, 'No, you do. Or you blacked out.' What happened was very obvious."
What's obvious is that Gordon and Burton are passionate about winning not only races, but titles. What's obvious is that even the most politically correct statesmen in the sport, two drivers who put their reputations on the line daily representing clients such as the Sanofi Pasteur Pertussis campaign and AARP's Drive to End Hunger (Gordon) and the Duke Children's Hospital (Burton), can be pushed to a level of losing control.
That's one of the fun things about the sport. It draws out the best and sometimes the worst in people.
That Gordon and Burton still disagree six months later isn't what's important. Both have moved on and plan to race each other respectfully like they always have. Neither is returning to the scene of the so-called crime Saturday night looking for revenge.
But this does go to show how important success in this sport is to not only these drivers, but everyone involved. It's the same passion and commitment to excellence that makes people such as the normally passive Jimmie Johnson climb out of his car at Martinsville on Sunday and criticize the governing body for what he believed to be a bogus speeding penalty.
He has since apologized, by the way.
"What I can relate to and why I have no issue with Jeff is, number one, I like Jeff," said Gordon, who is 12th in points. "Jeff is a great race car driver, a great guy. That's very rare what happened. I'm sure he was very frustrated with the way his day and season was going, like I was.
"I drove up to him and showed him my displeasure like, 'What's up?' That was a similar thing to what happened with him, except he took it to a whole other level."
Burton and Gordon, unlike some drivers, were brought up to show respect on the track. Gordon learned his lesson the hard way from his stepfather, John Bickford, who made him give back a first-place trophy when he was 7 because he "drove over the top of this kid" in a midget car race.
Some might question why Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't run over Kevin Harvick in the closing laps at Martinsville to put an end to his nonwinning streak, which will reach 100 at Texas. His dad certainly would have, based on history.
But Earnhardt, like Gordon and Burton, understands that it's much more rewarding to beat somebody because you're better or faster, not because you can knock him out of the way.
Sometimes frustration leads people to do things they normally wouldn't, which made Earnhardt's decision to race Harvick cleanly all the more impressive.
But frustration does play a role. It led to Burton sending Gordon's car into the wall under caution after he thought Gordon cut him off earlier. It led Gordon to approach Burton on the track and deliver a bad imitation of Bruce Lee trying to get his point across.
OK, so Burton says he was simply pulling up to let Gordon know what happened as Gordon pulled up to him to show his displeasure earlier and made a mistake. That is where they disagree.
But it was frustration nonetheless.
If you remember, Burton was in the midst of a nonwinning streak that now has reached 83. He was having one of those years when he believed his equipment was good enough to win a title if Lady Luck wasn't frowning on him.
Gordon was in the midst of a losing streak that became 66 before he won earlier this year at Phoenix and was having a similar season in the bad luck department.
When their worlds collided, it turned ugly. Gordon called Burton a "dumbass" over his in-car radio, then went after him with a shove and a few wild swings with an open hand before NASCAR officials separated them.
I would tell you what you saw in Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon is they've got a lot of racing left in their life. It was more about passion than being mad.” -- John Bickford, Jeff Gordon's stepfather
A few minutes later, Gordon told reporters, "Of all the people out there, I never thought it would happen with Jeff Burton. I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for him, but I certainly lost a lot of respect today."
That was frustration speaking.
"I definitely believe my frustration made me react the way I did, from the day we were having to the buildup of the year we were having," Gordon said.
On that, Gordon and Burton agree. Both are at an age -- Gordon is 39 and Burton 43 -- where they won't have many more opportunities to win a title or races unless they drink from the fountain of youth that 52-year-old Mark Martin does.
For Burton, the frustration continues as he remains winless since 2008 and is ranked 28th in points with cars he feels have been capable of top-10s for the most part.
"This means a lot to me," Burton said. "The further I get into my career, the less opportunities I have. The further I get into my career, the more cherished the opportunities are. I think that came out [at Texas].
"Nothing positive came from that with Jeff other than Jeff and I both handled it well, in retrospect. On that day, we didn't."
Both can laugh about it now. Others laugh about it, too, knowing they likely won't see those two involved in another such incident together.
"Kind of funny to watch," said Gordon's teammate, Johnson. "I think he'd rather have thrown a punch than to sit there pushing."
Harvick, who goes to Texas with consecutive wins at California and Martinsville, likes seeing the shoe on the other foot.
"I know Burton always kind of laughed at me, and even Gordon," Harvick said of his reputation for getting into scuffles. "He would always kind of give me the shot in the ribs, saying that was pretty fun to watch yesterday. 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."
Kurt Busch agreed.
"They're politicians," the 2004 Cup champion said. "They're usually going to come into that conversation and say they're the better guy and try to win it verbally."
Reminded they still disagree on what happened, Busch laughed and said, "That's what politicians do."
Burton and Gordon are two of the best and most passionate politicians in NASCAR, two that haven't given up on being the best.
"I would tell you what you saw in Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon is they've got a lot of racing left in their life," Bickford said. "It was more about passion than being mad."
You sensed it that day. You could still sense it as Gordon rekindled those feelings in the relaxed atmosphere of the lounge.
"When you get to the point in your career where we're both at, you don't know when that next win is going to come, when the next top-5 is going to come," Gordon said. "You don't know if you're ever going to win another championship or your first championship.
"When the opportunity presents itself, you want to take full advantage of it. When it doesn't, like that day, it's frustrating."
But fun to watch.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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