I have to admit it was a bit of a downer earlier this week to hear that Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart had buried the hatchet over their last-lap wreck at Daytona. With those two hotheads, you figured, there had to be some fireworks coming.
Then we heard at Chicagoland that, even though the two talked by phone and things were “OK,” Busch had forgiven nothing. He was, in fact, still as upset as he was when Stewart sent him into the wall after Busch tried to block him last Saturday night.
“If the second-place driver dumps the leader, then black-flag him,” Busch said. “He doesn’t get the win. If he’s up alongside the leader and dumps him, give the third-place car the victory.”
Whew. And to think we nearly missed a new feud.
What’s curious is that these two haven’t hooked up more often. Neither is ever going to give an inch on the track, and neither is ever going to accept too much blame. What was interesting was listening to Busch act as if he never used his car to move another and win a race.
“I’d do it the same way I did if I had the same chance,” he said. “But I don’t have it back, so it doesn’t matter. It’s over with and done with. I did everything I could to try to win the race. I didn’t. If I’m ever second, I normally finish second. Whenever I’m leading, I guess I get wrecked.”
For his part, Stewart has yet to take Busch’s bait and react publicly. I guess this ownership thing has taken some of the surliness away. When asked three separate times during Thursday’s media session about Busch’s remarks, Stewart would only say that the two had talked and it was over as far as he was concerned.
It’s a good bet, though, that Ol’ Smoke won’t let it slip his memory if the two are close late in the coming weeks.
Anyway, what happened could have happened between any two drivers on the track. A driver leading on the last lap at Daytona or Talladega has two options: He can choose his line and hope the driver behind him doesn’t get any help, or he can do like most would and try to block.
The problem last week came when Busch blocked twice, and on the second attempt Stewart’s car was already there and Busch turned himself. Sure, Stewart could have backed off or swerved to the outside, but why would he? Busch had allowed him to move up.
While Busch sulked and Stewart bit his lip, other drivers spoke up about the incident and the nature of winning a restrictor-plate race.
“One thing that’s evident to me is that I don’t want to be leading on the last lap, or coming off the last corner,” Jeff Gordon said, laughing. “That hasn’t turned out too good for those guys here recently at those tracks. I’m looking at it more from a blocking standpoint instead of what the guy in second place is doing.
“We’ve gotten so comfortable as drivers out there that we believe on these restrictor-plate tracks that all you’ve got to do is just block your way all the way to the finish line and you’ll finish first. That’s worked in the past. That’s not working anymore. We’ve learned too much about these cars and how to draft with these cars and how to get ourselves in position to make that move coming to the finish line, if you’re behind.”
Gordon and others believe the COT, despite its safety advances, is partly to blame for the rash of blocking-induced wrecks. The bigger hole created in the air by the bigger car allows cars behind the leader to suck up quicker. In other words, what Busch did last week would have worked for him with the old car.
Big wrecks, though, are hardly new to the big tracks. It is — and even NASCAR officials would have to admit it on some level — part of what fans love about Daytona and Talladega. Wrecks also are not going away any time soon.
“I’ve been to Daytona now six times, and I think all of them have been like that,” Juan Pablo Montoya said. “So I don’t know why all of a sudden it’s an issue. It’s what it is. At Talladega there are always wrecks. At Daytona there are always wrecks. People pay to go and see that, I guess.
“It’s restrictor-plate racing at its best. There is always somebody going to walk out of there mad and ticked off that they should have or could have, and when the caution came out why some people raced to the flag and some people didn’t. It is what it is.”
Drivers know that, but it doesn’t change the way they drive. The race leader is always going to protect his turf. The guy behind him is always going to try everything he can to make the pass. If it weren’t that way, NASCAR would hardly be worth watching.
“I’ve been the leader on restarts in different situations on these restrictor-plate tracks,” Gordon said, “and as a competitor you get so focused on how do I get to that finish line first and what do I have to do to win, that a lot of times even though you know you’re blocking and shouldn’t be, you still do it. It’s like you’d almost rather go down fighting than give it up and finish second or third or fourth.”
Surely Kyle Busch feels the same way.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...