News & Media

Pit road scuffle brings rift between ex-teammates

May 18, 2012, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman were teammates at Penske Racing for three seasons, and their most notable moment during that tenure was the former pushing the latter to a victory in the Daytona 500. They were friends, Busch said. But after last weekend's saga at Darlington Raceway, that may not be the case anymore.

Busch and Newman were central figures in a dustup last Saturday night that included contact on pit road, a scuffle among crewmen, and ultimately $60,000 in fines doled out by NASCAR. Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, on the eve of the sport's no-points, $1 million-to-win Sprint All-Star Race, it was clear that hard feelings were still lingering -- particularly among the drivers involved.

"Newman and I were friends. We were great teammates, and he needs to check his trophy case on that Daytona 500 trophy I helped him get years ago."


"Newman and I were friends. We were great teammates, and he needs to check his trophy case on that Daytona 500 trophy I helped him get years ago," Busch said, referring to their 1-2 finish in the 2008 edition of the Great American Race. "We've always been great friends. There was no need for his comments afterward. He knew that his Southern 500 didn't go the way he wanted it to, and at the end of the night everybody's hot and pissed off. The Daytona 500 is a big race, and Darlington is just as big of an event, and a lot of people get excited for it."

That was clearly the case last weekend, after Busch and Newman each spun late in the race in an incident that did not involve any contact between the two cars. Everything changed when the drivers came in for their pit stops, and Newman's No. 39 team accused Busch of endangering its crewmen by speeding through their pit box on the way out. Tensions rose higher following the event, when Busch's car banged into Newman's on pit road -- contact Busch claims was precipitated by him taking off his helmet, and not seeing the No. 39 car in time to avoid it.

It all made for a combustible atmosphere, so not surprisingly the crews got into it once the race was over. Later, Newman told one reporter that Busch had a "chemical imbalance." NASCAR responded with penalties, $5,000 to one crewman on each team and $50,000 to Busch, which the driver said Friday he paid out of his own pocket.

"Absolutely," said Busch, whose No. 51 car will be sponsored for the All-Star Race by Monster Energy. "I've been fined probably more than any driver, and I've probably paid it out of my own pocket more than any driver."

It's not unusual for NASCAR to come down hard on drivers it views as potentially endangering personnel on pit road. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick were each fined $25,000 for a fracas last year at Darlington, which also involved contact on pit road following the event. Nationwide Series driver Steve Wallace was fined $5,000 for intentionally hitting another car on pit road at Memphis in 2009. Busch, who ran in the top 10 much of the night before his spin, said he was just trying to beat the pace car out to stay on the lead lap, and didn't think he had done anything wrong.

"I didn't think anything of it, other than, we've put up a good fight this whole year with trying to just work as hard as we've worked, trying to complete the day and get those top-10 finishes" he said. "These guys work harder than anybody else in this garage. This 51 Phoenix Racing team, I love them to death. They've got my back, I've got theirs. We just wanted to finish on the lead lap. So I was trying to get off pit road as quick as I could and Newman, he left his pit a good 10 seconds before us, and I didn't think there was any reason to think any crew guys were in danger. One guy has a problem with it, and it just escalated from there."

Busch also believed Newman's "chemical imbalance" comment, made to a Sports Illustrated correspondent, was uncalled for. "He was agitated just like I was after a good day gone bad, and he was just in the emotion of it," Busch said. "With him making the comments that he did, he was a little out of line as well from the heat of the moment."

Let's play the feud

Tempers got hot at Darlington as the crews from Ryan Newman's No. 39 and Kurt Busch's No. 51 had an altercation after the race.

Three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip, who could talk as good a game as anyone in his day, said it's not unusual for drivers to say something they later wish they hadn't. "You say things you regret," he said. "... I'd go places and after it was over with and say, 'I don't know why I said that. I was just mad.' And I think that's probably what Ryan's problem was."

Tony Stewart, Newman's car owner, said he hasn't had any issues with Busch in a while -- evidenced by the fact that Busch is competing in Stewart's charity dirt late model race at Eldora Speedway next month. He believes Busch and Newman will eventually put their differences behind them.

"The good thing about all these guys is, even after running like that, normally after a couple of weeks it gets calmed down and everything gets back to reality and it will settle down a little bit," Stewart said. "I'm sure after the weekend they'll both have time to think about whatever it is that happened, and will have time to sort it out."

While the feud with Newman may fade, Busch's efforts to get the most out of his shorthanded Phoenix Racing cars will continue. After his split with Penske following last season, Busch took a step down to an organization with one career Sprint Cup victory, that has just 18 full-time employees, and brings only six people to the race track. All season, the James Finch-owned Phoenix team has tried to get its vehicles up to Busch's level, and at times -- like Saturday night at Darlington -- the frustration inherent in that transition shows.

"It's tough," Busch said. "... You're running seventh to eighth, go in for a pit stop, come out 15th, and then we've got to work hard to get back in the top 10. You just can't count on everything going perfect, so when you're behind the eight ball, you've got to get more creative."

Steve Barkdoll, Phoenix's general manager, said the team's cars are catching up to its driver, as evidenced by competitive runs each of the past two weeks. "I definitely believe we're further along than we were," Barkdoll said. "I still think his level is just a little bit ahead of us. But I think three of the last four weeks we've been running in the top 10 with less than 50 miles to go, so I think we're really close."

Even so, the margin for error at Phoenix is much narrower than it is at other teams with more resources and manpower. "He's used to being with a premier team," Waltrip said of Busch. "I know James Finch, I love him to death, and I know James is giving him everything he's got, and Kurt has done a good job with that team, I think. Competitive at Talladega, competitive at Darlington. But I think he's just a guy that's frustrated, and he's probably a little concerned about what the future is going to be like."

Busch, who has had his share of run-ins with other drivers over the years, is well aware that he's always under a microscope. "Is my strike zone bigger than others? Yeah," he said. "It might be a little bigger than others, but I don't have a problem with it." His immediate focus, he said, is getting finishes out of cars that are running better but still struggle to make it to the end. And if he learned one thing from last weekend's saga at Darlington, it was to keep his helmet on all the way to the garage area.

"I should have learned that from the Jimmy Spencer incident years ago," he said.