The 2010 Sprint All-Star Challenge, just like every year, is just that – an all-star race. It is NASCAR’s infomercial to its fans: Love NASCAR. Cheer for Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, even though you don’t like them. Drivers would wreck their blind grandma to win a million bucks, so tempers surely will flare. And oh, buy Sprint phones. The views and opinions expressed in the All-Star Race do necessarily reflect those of NASCAR’s regular season points championship.
Which brings us to the late-race scrape between Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. With eight laps to go, Busch had a full head of steam in second place on the outside line and nearly took the lead from teammate Hamlin. The No. 11 Toyota, though, came up the track just enough to partially chop off Busch’s line, take the air off his nose, and cause the No. 18 car to scrape the wall. The lost momentum and moderate damage caused Busch to lose several spots in the running order. Several laps later, he eventually cut a right-front tire, which sent him careening into both the wall and Kasey Kahne’s Budweiser Ford in an ending that left him none too pleased.
“Somebody better keep me away from Denny Hamlin after this race,” a furious Busch yelled on his team’s radio.”I swear to God, I’m going to kill that [expletive]. His entire [expletive] fault! I had this race won! It was won!”
Busch drove his M&M’s Toyota to the garage, parked it in front of the FedEx team’s hauler, and waited inside the trailer for eventually fourth place-finishing Hamlin. But instead of fisticuffs, pistol waving, and strangulation (circa the “old school NASCAR” way of handling a disagreement) or communicating by cold texts (circa the “new school NASCAR” way), the ultra-competitive drivers each had a wrap session with owner Joe Gibbs. Though it started out heatedly, particularly on Busch’s end, the two came to an understanding of sorts:
- They do not want their conflict to affect the guys at the shop and create an unfixable rift at Joe Gibbs Racing.
- They both are expected by their race teams to do whatever winning takes, including making gutsy moves at the end of races.
- They are teammates and they hold the same banner, but with 10 laps to go and the race on the line… every man is for himself.
- Saturday night’s racing had little consequence, because points were not a factor.
Though Busch did not publicly comment on the incident or the meeting, outsiders don’t need to over-read into his radio transmissions. No, Hamlin’s life is not in jeopardy. Busch is the greatest demonstrator of the verbal explosions that many drivers detonate in their helmets and on their radios in times of strife. His biggest fault is an inability to remain cool when he feels wronged, but it also fuels a competitive edge that makes Busch one of the most talented, determined drivers in the garage.
Hamlin has his moments of outrage and has not been shy across both teammates’ wires and those of other drivers. Just last week, Hamlin peed in Clint Bowyer’s Cheerios… er… Zaxby’s, by roughing him up on a Nationwide Series restart at Dover. Hamlin also has sparred with Brad Keselowski, Keselowski’s former owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and chapped then-teammate Tony Stewart’s tuckus mightily after roughing him up in the draft at Daytona in July 2007. That, and the public comments made afterward by both Stewart and Hamlin at the time prompted Joe Gibbs to put on the coach’s hat (just like Saturday night) and meet with his drivers. But, like Busch, Hamlin’s willingness to make gutsy moves to gain track position make him one of Sprint Cup’s elite. Pair that with his constant willingness to both police situations when done wrong (in the case of Keselowski at Homestead in the Nationwide Series last year) while seeking out the opinions of other drivers on how he races them, and that leaves you a man who’s gained coveted respect with his fellow competitors.
With the big picture in mind, the real question that rises from the ashes of NASCAR’s latest teammate fallout is whether or not Busch and Hamlin’s scrape will derail either’s chances at dethroning four-time defending Cup champ Johnson. The answer is no. Busch and Hamlin accomplished in 20 minutes late Saturday night what Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth took a couple of years to figure out, and what Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman were never able to establish as teammates for five years at Penske Racing. Hamlin and Busch dished out their feelings, came to an understanding, and already have moved on for the most part.
Less than a month ago, Jeff Gordon and Johnson’s teammate rivalry came to a head. Gordon said Johnson was “pissing him off” on national television and seemed at the end of his rope, after Johnson cut him off in the draft at Talladega and had scraped doors with him out of frustration the race before in Texas. While neither has won during or since their mini-feud, both know that carrying the conflict forward would divide their Hendrick Motorsports race shop and deflate their chances at winning. So they left the feud to die.
Hamlin and Busch are younger, still maturing (especially in Busch’s case), and still developing as leaders of their teams, so dustups are much more likely to send them out of the bounds of sanity. But with Joe and JD Gibbs guiding them and with veteran crew chiefs planted upon the No. 18 and 11 pit boxes, their “feud” in the All-Star Race was nothing more than a hiccup in midst of heavy competition. Let the media blow it off the scales to fuel the news cycle, but come Memorial Day, “Busch vs. Hamlin: Saturday Night Slam” will be nothing more than something to chuckle and jab about in the Joe Gibbs Racing break rooms.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.
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