There were differing opinions on the quality of racing Saturday night; but if we learned anything from the new Bristol that everyone can agree on, it’s that the Kyle Busch – Carl Edwards battle is officially the sport’s newest rivalry. With one angry swipe on the cool-down lap – and one angry slam hit in retaliation – NASCAR’s two most successful drivers of 2008 also decided that they didn’t like each other all that much.
But what the sport has yet to understand – and what they’ll be watching – is whether this is the battle fans in the stands are looking to see.
Make no mistake, though; those battle lines are being drawn. After leading 415 laps in one of the more dominating short-track performances of recent years, Busch found himself vulnerable after the night’s final caution flag for debris bunched up the field. Edwards was on his back bumper, and the challenger knew the only way he could get to the front was by hounding Busch on the restart. But despite being all over the No. 18, neither driver would give an inch in the closing laps as the two appeared equally matched.
That is, until Edwards took matters into his own hands. Just a little bump – tame by Bristol standards – sent Busch a little squirrelly and opened up the inside line for Edwards to streak to the win. It was a two, maybe a three at best on the one-to-10 scale of historical dirty driving; but it’s a move that would come with no apology from the man that pushed the envelope.
“That’s one of those deals where I couldn’t get by him and I couldn’t get by him and I just had to ask myself, ‘Would he do that to me?’” Edwards said of his rival. “And he has before, so that’s the way it goes.”
“All I could think about was Richmond in a Nationwide race when he was trying to get through the field, and he pile drove me. That’s just the way it is. I have a lot of respect for the guy and he was real fast, but we can’t give up points when they’re right there for us to take.”
But taking anything away from Busch by force always comes with a price. The points leader couldn’t get back to Edwards’s bumper before the end of the race – but his reaction was swift and severe once the checkered flag flew. Busch’s slam into Edwards showed an obvious displeasure at losing points, prestige, and the battle of aggression that he usually dominates.
“He spun me out,” Busch said of the man he referred to as “Mr. Ed”-like after the race – comparing him to the famous TV horse from the 1960s. “So I got into him a little bit and let him know that I didn’t appreciate the way he passed me.”
“He’ll always come back and say he’s sorry. He did it at Milwaukee [with Clint Bowyer], and he’s done it a few other times. It’s just his normal fashion – that’s fine.”
“He was mad and I can completely empathize with his anger,” answered Edwards later. “I probably would have done the exact same thing [if I were in his position]… if I could have passed [Busch] without running into him, that’s what I would have done.”
But he didn’t, and so now we’re left with sore feelings and soaring testosterone that’s not coming down anytime soon – and a war that’s likely to play out during the playoff races of September, October, and November. The two have now combined to win 14 of 24 races this season; no one else on the circuit has won more than two. In fact, this was the fifth time this season both Busch and Edwards have taken the checkered flag first and second; Busch leads those battles 3-2, although Edwards has closed the gap with wins in each of the past two weeks. It’s clear that up to this point in the season, both drivers have established themselves as the class of the field in Sprint Cup.
But the unanswered question remaining is whether this is the act millions of fans across America signed up for. We see it all the time in stick ‘n’ ball sports: there’s an ultra-competitive World Series, but no one watches because the fans could care less for either of the two teams involved. San Francisco – Anaheim? Yeah, that’s a World Series from six years ago… a competitive one, at that, but hardly anybody outside those two cities remembers what happened or who won. It’s a surefire sign that the people and the places make the memories in sports as much as the actual competition itself.
With that in mind, early results seem to indicate this is one twosome that still has some growing to do. Kyle Busch may be compared to Dale Earnhardt Sr. on his best days, but the booing from the stands trumps all else on his worst ones. Edwards used to come off as the Goody Two Shoes of the Cup Series, but recent problems with his temper and his tongue threw some cracks in the Dudley Do Right routine. Both men’s flaws make it hard for fans to universally accept them for who they are – neither started the season as the circuit’s most popular driver, and both are left with an almost insurmountable hill to climb in that department even after all the success.
Fans are still hesitant, adjusting; these were clearly not the two men they were expecting to have thrown at them week in, week out at the beginning of 2008. This year was supposed to be about Jeff Gordon’s Drive for Five, Jimmie Johnson’s Drive for Three straight titles, and Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth’s bid to unseat them both. In the background, the most popular driver’s move to the most powerful team – Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Hendrick – was to grab constant headlines. But 24 races in, Kenseth, Gordon, and Stewart are winless, while the primary focus revolves around two men who faced unpredictable futures as little as six months ago.
That backdrop makes it hard for this rivalry to become Petty – Pearson, Allison – Waltrip, or Earnhardt – Wallace… yet. There’s certainly potential for growth over the coming years, as both drivers are locked into their rides in long-term deals that make them the No. 1 focus of their respective organizations. Both are in their 20s, and both have the primes of their career ahead while former champs Gordon, Kenseth and Stewart enter their late 30s – suddenly ancient history in the age of the “young gun.”
But short-term success is what NASCAR is after… and they’re after it now. In a year where NASCAR has taken so many hits from all different sides of the coin, they can’t wait for this thing to grow roots. It needs to be a full-blown tree of verbal jabs, on-track aggression, and side-by-side sparks to the finish line… something that gets fans as psyched as America was to see Michael Phelps swim for those eight gold medals.
At least both sides have drawn first blood, with bad blood simmering for the first time in the six months they’ve been thrown in the national spotlight. Now, it’s up to the fans; and we’ll know very soon whether enough headlines have been stirred to keep from having them change the channel and wait ‘till next year.