News & Media

Caraviello: Johnson vs. Busch is boys having at it right way

August 10, 2011, David Caraviello,

While Brad Keselowski was running off to his surprising and one-footed victory at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, the real action was taking place behind him, as two old adversaries went at it yet again. Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch bumped once, twice, three times in the final laps in Long Pond, and then held a long, animated discussion on pit road afterward that involved plenty of scowls, descriptive hand gestures, and crewmen standing by just in case things began to get testy.

They didn't, of course -- if there are any two drivers on the Sprint Cup tour who know how to argue with one another, it's Johnson and Busch, who between them have six championships at NASCAR's highest level and are approaching a tally of run-ins that is now threatening to crack double digits. They're both strong drivers in strong cars with strong feelings on the right and wrong way to compete on the race track, even if they occasionally disagree on which is which. Since a 2009 incident at Infineon Raceway when Johnson spun Busch into a tire barrier during a battle for position, they've always seemed to be in the proximity of one another when knuckles get white around the steering wheel and finishing positions are on the line.

People have called them magnets, a not-uncommon racing term for two drivers who can't seem to stay out of one another's way, but in this case the literal meaning -- objects that generate their own fields of influence and attract or repel others -- seems to work as well, given the formidable driving ability and formidable reputations of the parties involved. There's not a lot of middle ground when it comes to these two. Johnson and Busch broke into NASCAR's premier series within one year of each other, and have been serious title contenders since almost their first days on the circuit, so it's not surprising they'd build up something of a history.

But that history can be a little complex sometimes. The relationship between Busch and Johnson doesn't always fit the classic definition of a rivalry, and it certainly doesn't rise to the level of a feud. There haven't been any out-and-out retaliations, such as those that defined the combustible on-track dynamic between Carl Edwards and Keselowski. There doesn't appear to be a clear personal disdain, like the one that simmers between Kevin Harvick and Kurt's younger brother, Kyle. You don't see these two called off to the NASCAR hauler to explain themselves after each skirmish; heck, it's not unusual to spot them traveling in the same social circles during Champions Week. While we can't truly know what lurks inside a driver's head, it all gives the impression that they don't mind one another -- unless they're racing side-by-side.

In that case, all bets are off. That 2009 confrontation, when Johnson nipped Busch's right-rear and sent him spinning through the dirt in Sonoma, led to another battle seven days later where they traded blows on the track at New Hampshire, which begat another confrontation at Chicagoland two weeks afterward. If anything would test the limits of their tolerance for one another, it was that night in Joliet, where the two made contact in a three-wide situation late in the race. Running in the middle, Johnson appeared to get loose and wobble up into Busch, who delivered a double-door-slammer from the high side before fading back to 17th. In a television interview afterward, Busch said he was beginning to question Johnson's credentials as a then-three-time champion. After the race, Johnson sent Busch a text message that wasn't immediately returned.

They wouldn't stay out of contact for long. After finishing third to a victorious Johnson at Bristol in March of the next season, Busch seemed crushed that he hadn't capitalized on an opportunity to beat the now four-time champ. "Anybody but the 48," he told a television interviewer. Later in 2010, things flared up again between the two in New Hampshire, when Busch bumped Johnson out of the way to take the lead. With two laps remaining, Johnson caught him and returned the favor. Once again, it was Johnson first and Busch third. Busch called the exchange hard racing. Johnson called it a message.

"My thought process was, wreck his a--," Johnson said afterward. "But my end result was like, you can't do that. You're going to wreck yourself and look like a fool. You have a chance to win this race. Focus on you job. Do your job. It made it easier for me to get off the brake a little earlier and nudge him. I don't want people think, 'Oh, I can knock the 48 out of the way because he's not going to wreck me.' That's the last thing I want people to think."

Johnson's tone was different, though, one month later at Pocono when he inadvertently bumped Busch from behind and spun the Penske driver into the wall. That wasn't the worst part -- Busch ricocheted back down the track, got hit by the oncoming car of Clint Bowyer, and slammed the inside tire barrier so violently it had to be welded back into place. In the wreck's aftermath, Elliott Sadler struck an earthen wall so hard the engine was knocked out of his car. That crash increased the outcry for soft walls on the inside of the Pennsylvania track, and led to a telephone call between Busch and Johnson afterward.

"I hate that over the last year or two there have been a lot of those racing incidents, and he certainly has been on the losing end of that situation," Johnson said a week later at Watkins Glen International, the road course NASCAR visits again this weekend. "It is nothing intentional. It's nothing I have against him."

That d tente lasted almost a year, until Sunday back at Pocono, and a far less frightening exchange that involved contact between the two as the field raced to the finish. No question, there are some undercurrents at work here. You get the feeling that Busch, who is often on the losing end of these incidents, wonders if and when he's ever going to receive the benefit of the doubt given that he's going up against a guy with four more championships. There seems to be some natural tension between somebody like Busch, who's still the same guy who took no prisoners at the Las Vegas Bullring, and somebody like Johnson who used business proposals to get his foot in the door and has cultivated a cosmopolitan image as champion.

"The guys at Hendrick are pretty boys, and they get on People magazine covers, and that's their job," Busch said last year at Watkins Glen. "My job is to go out and race cars. And that's what I focus on."

That's a harsh statement, but somewhat understandable given that a week earlier Busch had climbed out of a race car that had been accidentally wrecked by you-know-who. And yet, what gets lost in this saga is the fact that these are two drivers who have raced against one another for almost the entirety of their careers on NASCAR's top level, stubborn competitors who despite their differences can go at each other for the most part without incident. Those times when they clash, they're able to move on without wrecking one another intentionally or flipping each other onto their roofs. Johnson vs. Busch is boys having at it the right way -- two professionals who understand limits and consequences.

Maybe one day that will change, and the incidents will add up and the tempers will flare and this will become a real feud in every sense of the word. But that seems unlikely. Johnson is an unflappable champion with a reputation to uphold, while Busch is always trying to demonstrate that he's Johnson's equal. They battle one another so often because they're both so often up front, these two no-nonsense drivers who behind the wheel are probably more alike than people give them credit. They push one another, but are smart enough to only push so far.

If that's a feud, then please -- give us more of it.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.