Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch differ on meaning of ?hard racing?

At a rain-delayed Pocono race that ran over five hours, Brad Keselowski got a win that didn't just salvage his Chase hopes, it may have cemented them. But, as is almost always the case, a Busch found himself in the middle of the day's most compelling storyline.

With the laps remaining in the single digits and Keselowski's win all but assured, drivers were down to racing for position. And nowhere was the racing harder than in the battle for third, where Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch hammered back and forth at each other right into the final laps. It appeared to be hard racing, with perhaps a little more chrome horn emphasis than usual here and there. In the end, Busch won the battle and took the third position.

But right after the checkered flag flew, Johnson dropped his window netting and began motioning at Busch in frustration and disbelief. And when both reached pit road, Johnson climbed out of his car and confronted a surprised Busch. Plenty of yelling ensued, but over what?

"I worked him over for ten to 15 laps and had the opportunity to screw him over, and I didn't do it," Johnson told ESPN immediately after the confrontation. "I'm not going to run people over to pass them. It's not me."

"I was racing him flat out," Busch said in his own interview. "I didn't know you were supposed to pull over with five to go. We were racing clean, and he wants to come over and bitch at me?"

Now, the conventional thinking in these situations is that drivers like Johnson are the rational, reasonable peacemakers and the drivers like Busch are the angry, self-absorbed hotheads. So many times, in so many situations, Busch has taken offense to seemingly minor moments or blown up perceived offenses that instinct sides you with whoever he's mad at.

But in this case, he might have a point. "Why can't we race each other and put on a show for the fans?" he said, the implication being that in real racing, paint must be traded and dents must be issued. Johnson has won five Cup titles by practicing a form of racing that's clinical in its devotion to efficiency. But it's in no way dirty, in the Busch brothers/Kevin Harvick/Tony Stewart make-room-if-there-ain't-room sense of the word.

So Johnson has had plenty of success with his style. But he hasn't exactly won over the hearts of NASCAR fandom with it;� Busch certainly echoed the sentiments of a large chunk of NASCAR fandom when he later said that he wanted "anyone but the 48" to win the race.

One man's "good hard racing" is another man's "over the line," and it's up to you to decide whose side you come down on in this particular ongoing war of words. Still, we've got another storyline to watch in the final races of the season.

Johnson concluded his interview by tapping his head and saying he was "filing away" the memory of Sunday's race, and that Busch would be joining "a couple others" whom Johnson didn't specify. Busch, for his part, simply sat back in the media center and declared that the tape would show exactly what he thought it would: that he simply raced Johnson hard but not dirty.

Settle in, folks. It's getting good now.

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