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Aggression comes out early at Watkins Glen

August 12, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Johnson puts typically cool demeanor aside to send rival Busch a message

Aggression has become the attitude of choice at road courses on the Sprint Cup tour, with drivers using fenders and quarter panels to navigate these serpentine circuits as much as experience and skill. Friday at Watkins Glen International, the aggression came out early -- before cars had even taken to the track.

It also sprung from an unlikely source. Still fuming over on-track and post-race altercations with longtime adversary Kurt Busch last weekend at Pocono Raceway, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson put his typically cool demeanor aside during his weekly media availability to send his rival a message -- can it. Johnson seemed irritated less by the contact between the two drivers in the final laps this past Sunday than he was with how Busch allegedly spoke to him on pit road after the race.

" At the end of the day, I'm not going to let him run his mouth at me."

--JIMMIE JOHNSON


_______________________

"Our professionalism has gone down over the years on road courses."

--JEFF BURTON


_______________________

"If those guys are racing together, you know their history, so if you can get by them, get by them."

--KYLE BUSCH

"When we got to pit road, I'm not sure if anyone has had words with someone before, but when you're in that moment and you're having words with someone, and as the crowd starts to build around, that guy all of the sudden gets brave. And then when you think it's over, and you walk away, and that guy gets real tough -- I don't know about you, but that really makes me mad," Johnson said.

"The bottom line is, he just started running his mouth. And if you look at over the years and what his mouth has done for him, it got ... Jimmy Spencer to punch him in the face. It's led to issues with the NASCAR officials on pit road. I think we all tune in weekly to wonder what he's going to say to his crew guys. You look at what he said to Roger Penske, his car owner. That aspect is the part that really got me mad. At the end of the day, I'm not going to let him run his mouth at me. That's kind of how it is."

Busch, who isn't scheduled to speak to the media until Saturday morning, wasn't immediately available to rebut. But it's clear the latest edition of this saga involving Busch and Johnson -- a series of events that stretches back more than two years now -- adds another layer of hostility to a road-course race that promises to be hostile enough already, given how Sprint Cup drivers have taken to pushing each other around on tracks that turn right as well as left. To Jeff Burton, it's all beginning to border on unprofessional.

"We don't look like professional race car drivers, we look like amateurs that have been told, it doesn't matter where you finish or what happens. It's ridiculous," Burton said. "Our professionalism has gone down over the years on road courses. Our skills have improved. We have more skilled road-course racers today than we have before. Our normal drivers have improved on the road course abilities, but we are losing our ability to race each other and race each other with respect and willingness to give an inch in return for an inch later in the race. It's kind of embarrassing for our sport."

No wonder Denny Hamlin told his crew after the June road-course race in Sonoma, Calif.: Build me a tank, something I can hit guys with, and that can take a hit without falling apart. "Honestly, I think people think they can run over guys on road courses and not have repercussions like they do on the ovals," he said. "I think on the ovals when it happens, you know you've got one coming. Whereas on a road course, people think, ah, it's OK to run over the guy in front of me, he'll get over it. ... Guys do not show each other very much courtesy on these tracks, but it's just part of hard racing."

Indeed, the past two events at Infineon Raceway in particular have been plagued by cautions, including a notable one this season when a revenge-seeking Brian Vickers left Tony Stewart's car dangling from a tire barrier. Watkins Glen is a faster layout that almost forces cars into a single file in spots, but presents plenty of opportunity for contact barreling into Turn 1 and through the chicane known as the bus stop. It can also produce huge accidents, such as the one two years ago that sent Jeff Gordon airborne. That race came one week after NASCAR implemented double-file restarts, which some drivers credit with amping up the aggression on road courses.

"I think it all goes back to the double-file restarts. When they announced that was going to happen, you know, the rumblings in the garage were like -- oh my God, wait until these road courses, this is going to be disastrous. It's pretty much held up to that," Clint Bowyer said.

"I think what happens is, as the race progresses, everybody gets more aggressive," Gordon agreed. "But when you have double-file restarts in the late stages of the race, it definitely presents an opportunity for a lot more bumping and aggressive moves. I know at Sonoma, you could run four or five corners side-by-side before it really ever got single-file after a restart, so there's a lot of opportunities for guys to create a lot of action that's exciting, and the fans certainly enjoy that."

The contact that sparked the latest spat between Johnson and Busch came not on a restart, but through Pocono's first turn, as Johnson tried to prevent Busch from getting a side-draft off his No. 48 car. The vehicles made contact three times, and on pit road afterward, Johnson -- who makes a habit of trying to defuse potential conflicts immediately after they arise -- wasn't hesitant about sticking his head right into the No. 22 car. The conversation continued, and grew a little more heated, after Busch climbed out.

"We know there's been plenty of history over the years," Johnson said. "Things just kind of boil to a head. When I walked out of the car and started talking to him, he had one level of interaction with me while he was sitting in his race car. Then when he got out of the car, nether one of us was happy. But we were talking, and the crowd started to build, and his bravery started to build. I walk away, and he got awfully tough. that part frustrates me, and that's where you saw me engage like I did. If you're going to say something, say it to the man's face and eye-to-eye when he is there. Don't wait until he walks away."

Now it's time for Johnson and Busch to race one another again, something they've proven able to do despite the numerous dust-ups that have come to define their relationship. They'll roll off together not just Sunday in the Sprint Cup event, but also in Saturday's Nationwide race -- Johnson is making a rare appearance in a No. 7 owned by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Busch is filling in for Penske Racing stable mate Brad Keselowski, who cracked an ankle in a recent testing crash. The drivers' double duty makes for double the intrigue this weekend on a road course where no one is shy about throwing elbows.

"If those guys are racing together, you know their history, so if you can get by them, get by them," said Kyle Busch, Kurt's younger brother, who is also racing in both events. "Otherwise, we'll see if they can just wreck each other."

So far, that's one thing Johnson and the elder Busch brother have avoided. "My first option is to not tear up race cars. I have too much respect for the guys working on my race car and too much respect for Roger Penske and his organization to take it out [on the track]," Johnson said. But if that pledge comes to an end this weekend at Watkins Glen -- well, given the combative recent history of road-course racing on NASCAR's premier series, no one would exactly be surprised.

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