NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s the Call: Can Kyle Busch & Tony Stewart Get Along As Teammates?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch’s What’s the Call? Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s big controversies. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: Earlier this week, it was leaked to the press that Kyle Busch will be headed to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008. With on-track skirmishes and public bad mouthing in the not-so-distant past, can Busch and Tony Stewart get along as teammates?

Kyle + Tony = BFF?

Although nothing has been made official yet, it appears as if Busch, the petulant, embattled driver of the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet for Rick Hendrick will be moving over to the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet (and by “Chevrolet,” I mean “Toyota”) for Joe Gibbs Racing. While it is no secret that Busch’s relationship with his current teammates at Hendrick is far from chummy, the big question is, can he get along with his new teammate, Stewart?

I believe he can and will.

Busch turned 22 years old just three months ago. He has been driving full-time in the most prestigious form of racing in this hemisphere since 2005 when he was 19, for the biggest name in the sport. He scored two wins his rookie season, qualified for the Chase last year, and won the first Car of Tomorrow race at Bristol this spring. He is by no means hurting for talent.

What he is hurting for is some guidance.

Jeff Gordon made it perfectly clear, even before Kyle’s recent falling out at Hendrick Motorsports, that he had no desire to act as a coach or mentor to Busch. Who can blame him? While Kyle is reviled for his comments and actions, you’d be hard pressed to find many who don’t recognize him as the most talented young driver to come along in quite some time. Who wouldn’t see that as a threat?

The label that’s been affixed to Busch is that he’s an arrogant, ungrateful, spoiled brat. He’s 22 years old, has more Nextel Cup wins than many drivers who have been racing a lot longer than he has, and has already won nearly $14 million. He’s essentially a kid who won the lottery and is having some difficulty handling the intense pressure and microscopic scrutiny that comes with the territory.

Enter Stewart, who has been a lightning rod in the series since his arrival as Rookie of the Year in 1999. Tony has been at this nearly a decade… and still has some difficulty handling the intense pressure and microscopic scrutiny that comes with the territory.

The similarities between these two is as striking as their differences: Kyle can’t quite grow a beard to save his life; Tony has a five o’clock shadow by noon. Kyle can hide behind a stop sign; Tony, a mighty oak.

Busch can drive a car about as loose as you’d ever want it. Lap after lap at the Brickyard 400 this year, I saw him sliding through turn 4 in lurid four-wheel drifts that would make the stunt men from the film Ronin about as green as the No. 18 car he will drive in 2008. One of the more memorable moments this year was Stewart driving sideways, one handed, through turn 2 at Atlanta while giving Jimmie Johnson the “No. 1” salute with his left hand out the window with a couple of laps to go.

Tony’s thoughts on the CoT: “What a basket of junk. It drives like a station wagon, an old station wagon, like an old Oldsmobile wagon: green with wood panel trim on the sides.”

Kyle’s thoughts on the CoT: “It sucks.”

Both of these drivers have also earned public praise from one of their heroes, Mark Martin, calling them both the two most talented drivers in the series. Martin, who handpicked Matt Kenseth to join the Roush organization, is a pretty fair judge of talent.

I’m also reminded of two very poignant public moments in both drivers’ careers: Tony in 2001 following the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, after a late-race penalty for driving under the yellow line, had to restrained by car owner Joe Gibbs while having words with NASCAR Director Gary Nelson. Busch shoving crew members out of his way at Texas this year following his wreck with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Tony slapping a tape recorder out of a reporter’s hand then kicking it under a trailer. Kyle storming out of the winner’s press conference at Phoenix, when asked an innocuous question regarding older brother Kurt Busch‘s run-in with the law that weekend.

And let’s be fair to Tony. Yes, he’s testy and can be cranky at times. After watching him for eight years, we know how he is. All of us probably have a friend just like him. And just like that friend, as quick as he is to spout off and blow off some steam (his nickname is Smoke after all…), he is also quick to apologize, make up and move on. Joe Gibbs, while having turned the reins over to son JD Gibbs for the day-to-day aspects of the race team, still makes time to have a heart to heart with his drivers when things get out of hand, which is precisely what Busch has needed all along.

For his part, Tony may also be feeling some heat with current teammate Denny Hamlin quickly establishing himself as heir to the throne. In that regard, Kyle Busch may prove to be a powerful ally to help maintain some balance at Joe Gibbs Racing. Rising water floats all boats, and look for this duo along with Hamlin, to bring JGR to the forefront with a three-car super-team, while keeping each other in check. – Vito Pugliese

Joe Gibbs is NUTS!

So the cat’s out of the bag. Sources say Busch is headed to JGR in the No. 18 and will be teammates with Stewart and Hamlin. Busch and Stewart on the same team. Is Gibbs nuts? He has set himself up to mediate many Monday morning team meetings where the two drivers will be lectured about their attitudes and their inability to work together.

A lot of people have compared Busch to a young Stewart. The big question is can Stewart handle a young him? In his earlier days, Stewart was disliked by many because of his perceived ‘I’m better that you’ attitude. Along with the attitude, both drivers have shown they have problems with teamwork. Following the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway, both Busch and Stewart had problems with their teammates and were very outspoken about it. Busch blamed his Hendrick Motorsports teammates for having to settle for a second-place finish behind Jamie McMurray. During the same race, Stewart and teammate Hamlin were running 1-2 just 14 laps into the 400-mile race when the two made contact taking both out of contention for the win. Stewart placed 100% of the blame on Hamlin and took no responsibility for his part in the incident.

Busch also has said, “I don’t need somebody or something where people will be sort of two-faced, telling you that you’re great and this and that and everything else, and then go behind closed doors and tell somebody else, `Man, he’s out of control. What are we doing? This, that and whatever,'” referring to his teammates.

It’s no secret that not only do they not play well with their teammates, Stewart and Busch have also had their own tangles on the track. In perhaps on of the more memorable incidences, the closing laps of the Daytona 500 in February saw Busch swerve toward Stewart on the backstretch sending the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet below the yellow line at the bottom of the racetrack. Following the race, Stewart had just one thing to say about Busch. “He’s the one guy who’s probably going to hurt somebody out here. He’s all over the place. He’s what we like to call a bird with no feathers. He just doesn’t know where he’s going. He had a fast car. He just needs to learn how to drive the thing.” And of course, Busch refused to take blame in the incident as well saying, “I ran him below the yellow line, I guess, but I moved back up and gave him room.”

In theory, Gibbs could have a winning combination with three incredibly talented drivers in Stewart, Hamlin and Busch. But at the end of the day, Stewart and Busch will struggle to put their own attitudes behind them and coexist peacefully. – Beth Lunkenheimer

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