Ten years later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch sat down face-to-face to discuss their heated rivalry that blossomed in 2007 and came to a head at Richmond Raceway in 2008 — and lasted years longer.
On the latest edition of Dirty Mo Radio’s “Dale Jr. Download” podcast, Earnhardt and Busch met up over beer and doughnuts (provided by Busch) early in the morning at JR Motorsports in Mooresville, North Carolina. Their talk dove deep into what led to the events of that infamous night in Richmond (which Jeff Gluck reported on earlier this week).
Before the rivalry really sparked, both drivers were feeling the pressure in the search for a ride for the 2008 during the ’07 season.
“In 2007, I had no idea where I was going to drive,” Earnhardt said. “…I talked to a lot of people.”
“You probably did the whole tour,” Busch replied. “You were 3-4 months ahead of me.”
Eventually, both figured out their new rides as Earnhardt would go from the No. 8 Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Chevrolet to the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, while Busch jumped from the No. 5 at Hendrick to Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the No. 18.
Once their plans were set, that’s when the feud fired up.
Earnhardt wrecked Busch on the backstretch at Kansas Speedway in late 2007, having major implications on Busch’s hopes to win the championship.
After the race, Busch didn’t mince words with Earnhardt, calling him out for the incident and raising the question as to why he would wreck a car that belongs to a team he would race for next year. Earnhardt apologized for his mistake in post-race interviews.
“I heard his comment (about Junior coming over to Hendrick Motorsports and wrecking their equipment),” Earnhardt said Tuesday as they rehashed their rivalry. “That comment made my mind go, ‘He thinks I’m taking his ride.’ I’m thinking the whole time, ‘I’m not taking your ride! They’re keeping (Casey) Mears. Mears is taking your ride.’ That made me think he assumed I had screwed him over so many times. You know. He’s wrecked me. He’s pushed me out of HMS. I had it in my mind that you thought I was the devil.”
Busch confirmed with one word: “Absolutely.”
When the 2008 season rolled around, both drivers came out of the gate swinging. Busch won at Atlanta and Talladega to position himself second in the points standings heading into Richmond, while Earnhardt accumulated consistent finishes to work his way up to third in points.
“At first, I thought it was me versus the 88 team, Junior, those guys, mainly Junior, but then kind of as it developed and the season was kind of going, it was more of like a me versus Hendrick Motorsports-type thing,” Busch said. ‘It just became like, ‘Look, you all made this decision, so now you all are going to feel the wrath of this decision.’ ”
Then came Richmond.
The race was fairly tame between Earnhardt and Busch up until the battle for victory came down to the two competitors in the closing laps. But the rivalry exploded when Busch wrecked Earnhardt with three laps remaining, ruining the No. 88’s chances of winning.
“It was a recipe for disaster,” Earnhardt said. “Everything up to that point up through the first half of that year was leading to this moment.”
The recollection of the event prompted Busch to ask Earnhardt, “So did you know in the moment, though, when the wreck happened and you had a chance to see it that it wasn’t purposeful?”
Earnhardt’s response: “Yeah.”
“My mindset in that moment was like, if it was somebody else, if it was a teammate or somebody I was actually kind of getting along with, there probably would have been two more inches given, right?” Busch added.
But Earnhardt would get his payback later that year. And what better place than the fall Richmond race to deliver it to Busch?
“I was under a lot of pressure from my fans to do something,” Earnhardt said. “I felt in my heart if I don’t get him back, everybody’s going to look at me as this guy who gets wrecked and don’t do (expletive). It was just me being hard-headed and ignorant.
“I felt like if I didn’t wreck you at some point, my fans were gonna be really pissed.”
It was a decision that Earnhardt didn’t take lightly.
“I had been contemplating it and dreaming about it,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t want to do it. But I had to do it. … It’s definitely not my personality. I hate confrontation in any form. I try to avoid it at all costs. I like everybody to be happy. But that’s not going to be the way it is on the race track. I felt this pressure, ‘He’s not his daddy, he don’t stand up for himself, he lets people push him around.’ I thought I had to do it.”
So he did, sending Busch around with a shot to the rear quarter panel that had the fans cheering.
Busch went on to win eight races in 2008 while Junior had one victory, but the incidents with Earnhardt lingered in the back of his mind despite the success. Busch ended the season ranked 10th in the driver points standings, with Junior close behind in 12th.
“I didn’t feel vindicated because we sucked so bad through the final 10 races,” Busch said. “As soon as we hit (playoff) time, we stepped on any tack we could possibly find. It was horrible. We absolutely faltered and threw it away.
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“Things probably have maybe turned around sooner if ‘08 had ended with a championship. I may have been a little smarter and grown up a little bit quicker where it would have been like, ‘Hey Dale, sorry, I’m a total (expletive). Can we just forget about ’08? I’m OK now.’ ”
For Earnhardt, the rivalry messed with his head for a long time.
“I was consumed by our rivalry at different points of my life,” Earnhardt said. “I always knew where Kyle Busch was at on the race track. From 2008 to 2012 or ’11, I was consumed by it. It bothered the (expletive) out of me. I hated it. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t like fun, at all.”
Although it took a decade for the two fierce competitors to finally sit down and talk about it, it was a conversation that both agreed should have happened way before 2018.
“Man, when can we just figure out how to bury this hatchet,” Busch recalled thinking over the years. “I hate being mad at the guy, but I was just always waiting on him, and I don’t know why. Maybe it was because of age, maybe it was because of his stature. I don’t know why.”
“That’s so crazy. I never thought about it like that,” Earnhardt replied. “I thought Kyle hated my guts, or hated what I was or who I was.”
And not only have Earnhardt and Busch never forgotten about that Richmond scuffle, but they also realized their loyal fans haven’t, either.
“I was really surprised 10 years later, fans are still so frickin’ passionate about that night,” Earnhardt said.
“Yep, I hear about it all the time,” replied Busch.