As we put the Carl – Brad fiasco in the rear-view mirror, there’s plenty of debate about where we go from here. But fans, insiders and drivers alike can agree on one thing, no matter which side of the coin they fall: this week’s race at Bristol is the most-anticipated short-track slugfest in years. With drivers clearly sent a message that payback’s not only acceptable, it’s encouraged, everyone’s looking to see how many will loosen the reins and play bumper tag – especially at a track where patience ends the second the green flag drops.
With that in mind, it’s time to have a little fun on this off-week and see who’s the next Brad Keselowski: you know, the guy some drivers and fans feel need to be “taught a lesson” on the track. Just know before we go any further we’re embarking on a feel-good, laid-back journey that’s a little tongue-in-cheek: don’t read if you don’t have a sense of humor. As I said in SI last week, of course I don’t want chaos on the track: any retaliation can end in serious injury, especially if done the wrong way. But most fans would be lying if they said there wasn’t at least one driver they’d like spun into the inside wall at the half-miles as punishment for a long list of misdeeds – and now, more than ever, that chance exists.
So let’s reach into our inner devil and bring those fantasies to life. Here they are, in no particular order – five victims who better watch their rear bumpers this weekend and at Martinsville the end of the month, as well as five aggressors that might lay the chrome horn:
The provocative Busch has had a rather quiet season by his standards, making more news off the track (recent engagement, criticizing the media’s Danica lovefest) than on it. But considering he swept both Bristol races last year, leading 446 of a possible 1,003 laps, chances are the No. 18 Toyota will wind up at the front of the field at some point on Sunday.
So what happens next? Busch’s biggest rival, Edwards, is on probation for the next three weeks, one of the few likely to sit out any type of Bristol Demolition Derby. But there is NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver on the prowl, looking to seal his 2010 comeback by contending at one of his favorite tracks. Remember the Richmond wrecks between these two way back when? Earnhardt’s never gotten his “payback,” and you wonder what a desperate No. 88 does in close quarters with the No. 18 late in the race.
Other options for the Busch bump back to reality include his brother Kurt. On-track “brotherly love” between the two just isn’t there (See: All-Star Race, 2007) and it won’t make much to get tempers flaring, with both expected to be top-five runners. Let’s also not forget Kurt’s new crew chief, Steve Addington, who made no secret of the fact he was happy to get revenge on Kyle with a victory at Atlanta on Sunday. A longshot pick would be Gordon, who has good feelings for Busch but can get repeatedly frustrated with how the 25-year-old mouths off about his disappointment during a three-year tenure with Hendrick Motorsports. Never afraid to use the bump-and-run, that’s a last-lap maneuver that’s found the No. 24 pushing drivers like Matt Kenseth in the wall in recent years. Could Busch be next?
In his third year of Sprint Cup competition, Hornish has improved but still has a nasty habit of crashing out when you least expect it – and taking other drivers with him. His roller-coaster handling woes have upset Johnson many times, peaking at Texas last fall where the No. 77’s early aggression caused a wreck that put a rainout in the No. 48’s Chase Domination Tour 2009. You dent the champion’s trophy, well, you’re playing with fire, and JJ made some rare public comments then and since that show just how much he’s not a fan of the IndyCar convert.
But Johnson isn’t the only one angry as of late. Several have gotten tired of Hornish’s “transition” to Cup that’s included far too many “Oops! I did it again!” Britney Spears moments to count. It’s gotten to the point where “I’m sorry” is just not going to be good enough anymore, and with short tracks still his biggest weakness, you wonder if somebody’s just going to dust themselves off, take their best shot and ensure Hornish won’t ruin their day before he gets a chance.
Two spins equaled two wrecked racecars the last two times out for our Daytona 500 winner. But while Atlanta was at least somewhat forgivable (the No. 1 Chevy incited an eight-car wreck on old tires, losing control during a green-white-checkered), his Vegas tangle with teammate Montoya was so bad Montoya’s wife tweeted a clown would be a better driver than Jamie Mac. Add in the fact McMurray wrecked out the last two years at Bristol, and the odds are pointing to a “third time’s a charm” disaster at the hands of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet. Oh, did I mention who wrecked McMurray the last time we visited Bristol in the spring? I’ll give you a clue: his name rhymes with Juan Pablo.
4) Kurt Busch
Rivals: Johnson, Montoya
Could last week’s winner be this week’s last-place finisher? Depends on whom you ask. Busch has the respect of most inside the garage, but Juan Pablo is none too happy with his late restart during a green-white-checkered finish at Atlanta that kept the No. 42 from a serious challenge (Montoya wound up third).
Busch has also ruffled feathers with Jimmie Johnson multiple times over the last 12 months, with the two involved in a noteworthy scuffle at Chicagoland in July. If the “JJ Drive For Five Tour 2010” is really about kicking butt and taking names, wouldn’t the No. 48 want to send a message to a driver looking like a possible challenger to his latest title bid? And speaking of the champ…
Does the reigning four-time Chase winner have to watch his back? It sounds crazy on the surface, that a probation ruling involving two unrelated drivers would wind up putting a giant bulls-eye on Johnson’s Chevy. But despite the fact he’s got one of the most well-respected personalities inside the garage, NASCAR’s Let Boys Be Boys policy leaves his biggest rivals with a green light to do the one thing no one ever seems to do with No. 48 these days: rough that car up.
The question is whether someone has the guts. I don’t think it would happen at Bristol; as it is, that’s one of Johnson’s weakest tracks on the circuit. But at Martinsville the end of the month, a track where JJ has finished in the top five nine straight times… chances are he’ll be in the lead at some point, with the second place guy squarely placed on his back bumper. That leaves him vulnerable to a guy like Hamlin, looking to assert himself as JJ’s main challenger this season and someone needing a spark after a mediocre-at-best start to 2010.
Montoya’s another option, as his aggressive on-track exploits now have the confidence of a Chase berth behind them. Would he be willing to step it up a notch and send Johnson a message he’s not going to take this four-year browbeating lying down? And then, there’s Mr. Trash Talker himself, Harvick. Leading the standings, Harvick made it clear he thought Hendrick Motorsports “knew we could run with them” last week. But what better way to send a “hello, how are you” note that RCR’s truly back in contention than to take Johnson for a ride at a place where their car usually thrives.