(Eds: With AP Photos.)
By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - When NASCAR drivers gathered in Las Vegas last year to celebrate the end of the season, Jeff Gordon thought Clint Bowyer's rage toward him might have eased in the two weeks following an on-track spin and an off-track melee between their crews.
Bowyer, the life of every party, had no intention of including Gordon in the fun.
''I thought he might have gotten over it at least enough to look at me, but he won't even look at me, and when you are in this type of environment, that's going to be odd,'' Gordon said last November.
A full year removed from the Phoenix debacle, the relationship isn't much improved.
''It's affected our friendship, for sure,'' Gordon said. ''I like Clint, he's a funny guy, a fun guy to hang out with. So we're not doing much hanging out these days. But also, I'm not there to make friends. So it's just racing as usual for me.''
Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer in the closing laps of last November's race at Phoenix. On the surface, it appeared Gordon was retaliating for contact by Bowyer six laps earlier that cut one of Gordon's tires.
Furious over the damage, he spun Bowyer into the wall while creating an accident that also collected Joey Logano and effectively ended Bowyer's championship chances. An enraged Bowyer sprinted from his car into the garage, where crews for both drivers were fighting.
NASCAR fined Gordon $100,000 and docked him 25 points, but allowed the four-time champion to race in the season finale at Homestead, where he revealed that his anger with Bowyer dated back months. Bowyer first ran afoul of Gordon and the entire Hendrick Motorsports team on a late restart at Martinsville that caused an accident and cost Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson a shot at picking up the 200th win for the organization.
Gordon isn't sure the relationship with Bowyer, one of the most popular drivers in the garage, can ever be fully repaired.
''That was big, that was a major thing that happened between us and a heated exchange in the (NASCAR) hauler afterwards, too,'' Gordon said. ''I don't think it will ever be quite like it was. We've spoken since and laughed about a few things, so I'm not saying we won't ever have a few beers together.''
Bowyer to this day doesn't like talking about the Phoenix fracas with Gordon. Involved in his own controversy this year for intentionally spinning at Richmond in an effort to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, he joked last week the one upside of the Richmond firestorm was that it blew over far quicker than the Phoenix incident.
''That (Richmond) was my own doing, but what happened at Phoenix lasted a whole other year,'' Bowyer said. ''To put the magnitude of the situations, somehow (Richmond) went away in a month, and (Phoenix) lasted a whole year.''
Beyond that, Bowyer didn't bite on discussing Phoenix any further.
The two drivers have done a good job of avoiding on-track controversy between each other this season.
''He hasn't run into me, that's been a positive,'' Gordon said. ''He and I have always raced one another hard, but clean.''
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NO DISSRESPECT TO KEZ: Jimmie Johnson insists his crew chief meant to disrespect to defending NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski when he called Matt Kenseth ''a more formidable opponent'' in their bid for a sixth title.
Chad Knaus made the reference following Sunday's dominating win at Texas, which put Johnson and the No. 48 team up by seven points over Kenseth headed to Phoenix this weekend. It's the same advantage Johnson held a year ago over Keselowski, who went on to win his first Sprint Cup title.
Keselowski won the championship in part because Johnson had a tire issue at Phoenix and a mechanical failure in the finale at Homestead.
Johnson downplayed Knaus' remark, and pointed out that Keselowski was going for his first title with a young crew chief in Paul Wolfe and a Penske Racing organization that had never before won a Sprint Cup championship.
''It wasn't any disrespect to the 2 team,'' Johnson said. ''It was kind of based on experience. Paul, somewhat new, first championship battle. Brad, same thing.''
The flipside is Kenseth, a 31-race winner and the 2003 series champion. Although crew chief Jason Ratcliff is in his first Sprint Cup title fight, Joe Gibbs Racing has won three championships since 2000.
''You look at the 20's situation ... Matt, not his first experience,'' Johnson said. ''There's a little more experience in general. That's what ultimately (Knaus) was trying to say.''
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CANADIAN ATHLETE OF THE YEAR: It was a breakthrough season in IndyCar for James Hinchcliffe, who grabbed his first career victory in the season-opener at St. Petersburg and added wins at Brazil and Iowa before the year was over.
It was enough to earn Hinchcliffe a nomination for 2013 Canadian Athlete of the Year Award. The award is selected by voters on sportsnet.ca.
''It's an honor to receive a nomination and I'm simply proud to be on the list in amongst so many outstanding Canadians,'' Hinchcliffe said. ''We can all be super proud of our accomplishments as athletes this year and it shows the strength and determination of Canadians to succeed in competitive environments. Even better, it's a fan vote and in my opinion that's all the matters as they're the people who matter.''
Voting runs online through Nov. 15.
Hinchcliffe is one of 16 nominees and is up against the likes of three-time world champion figure skater Patrick Chan, golfer Graham DeLaet, world champion bobsleder Kaillie Humphries, mixed martial artist Georges St-Pierre, two-time reigning Winter X Games champion snowboarder Mark McMorris and curler Rachel Homan.

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