Friday, February 8, 2008
Busch and Stewart trade bumps, words at Daytona
By David Newton
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR chairman Brian France kicked off the 2008 media tour in Charlotte, N.C., last month by saying Sprint Cup drivers needed to show more of their personalities.
Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart obliged on Friday night.
Two of NASCAR's most controversial characters got into a sheet metal exchange on pit road after an on-the-track incident that wrecked both of their cars in the final practice for Saturday's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway.
Both drivers immediately were summoned to the NASCAR hauler to meet with Series director John Darby and competition director Robin Pemberton. They will meet again on Saturday before the governing body determines what fines, if any, will be issued.
The only words spoken by either driver -- both left through a side door without commenting -- came from Busch before entering the hauler.
"It's a great way to start off 2008," he said, clapping his hands together.
It was more like the way NASCAR started the 1979 season, when Bobby and Donnie Allison got into a fight with Cale Yarborough in the infield grass following an altercation on the last lap of the Daytona 500 to spark national interest in the sport.
"This is the NASCAR everybody fell in love with," said NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter, playing off France's back-to-the-basics theme. "Emotions run high."
Hunter said what happened showed the fine line between letting drivers be
themselves and crossing the line where safety becomes an issue.
"It's going to be difficult as a matter of fact," he said on how NASCAR would handle such situations. "Professional race drivers need to control their emotions when they're in the racecar. And we've shown in the past that we'll do whatever we need to do to make sure they do. After tomorrow's meeting we'll see where we are."
Hunter said the history of the drivers would not be a factor in any fines. Busch was fined $100,000 and docked 100 championship points in June after sending Stewart into a barrier at Dover and nearly hitting a member of Stewart's crew making additional contact on pit road.
He also was parked for the remainder of the race.
"It's a new season," Hunter said. "You said earlier today it was quiet. It's not quiet now."
Those weren't the only fireworks of the night session. Moments prior to that incident Ryan Newman spun out after a tap from Clint Bowyer. His car slid up the track and took out two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
Both drivers will use backups, not their Daytona 500 car, in the Shootout. The car in which Johnson won both races at Richmond last season and was scheduled to be tested at Nashville is expected to arrive at Daytona on Saturday morning for Johnson.
Bill Elliott, David Gilliland and Carl Edwards also were involved in that accident.
Newman said the speeds were marginally fast and suggested that NASCAR should do something to lower them before the race. Darby said the speeds were well below the concern area and nothing was being planned.
"The fastest I saw was 192 mph," Darby said. "We usually race at 195."
Speed had nothing to do with what happened between Stewart and Busch, who spun into the wall after a tap from Stewart. Busch felt Stewart caused the accident with the bump. Stewart felt Busch caused it by blocking.
"This was a typical reaction for an accident on a racetrack when neither driver felt they were at fault," Hunter said. "Anytime there's an accident, there's difference of opinions on why the accident happened."
Hunter declined to compare the incident to any others, specifically one last season in which Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya got out of their cars and shoved each other after an accident at Watkins Glen. Neither driver was fined.
"There's a lot of emotion in driving a racecar, and this is an example of that," Hunter said. "Both drivers were emotional."
That crew members were not on pit road will factor into NASCAR's decision on a penalty.
"If the pit crews are out on pit road, it's very dangerous," Hunter said. "Under a circumstance where there were people on pit road that would be different than what happened."
Gordon, standing in the garage talking to crew chief Steve Letarte, couldn't take his eyes off the big screen television as the Busch and Stewart saga unfolded.
Ironically, Gordon pointed specifically to Busch and Stewart earlier this year as drivers that have buried their personality for fear of being punished by NASCAR.
Gordon predicted Saturday night's race would be wild.
"I think we're going to see a lot of things like this happening because the drafting is so severe that there is a lot of movement going on out there," he said. "It's going to be exciting. I've been saying it's going to be exciting and I think there is a whole lot of excitement yet to come."
"It's not pretty," he said. "We're the crash-test dummies out there in a round-about way trying to figure out the new car at Daytona. The cars aren't handling very well. It's not the ideal racecar right now."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. saw the second wreck as a good reason to park for the rest of the session.
"I saw cars spinning everywhere," he said. "Looked like the No. 2 [Busch] was trying to block the No. 20 [Stewart] and Tony tried to go to the high side. It has been a wild practice out there. It is going to be interesting to see how this all unfolds.
"We liked our car really from the get-go right off the trailer so we weren't going to practice too much. That was a good enough reason to quit right there."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.