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Thursday, August 11, 2011
Updated: August 13, 5:22 PM ET
Jimmie Johnson vs. Kurt Busch: Part 2?

By David Newton
ESPN.com

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Maybe it's because you drive through tractor, cow, snowmobile, buggy and deer crossings -- rumor has it there once was a stinky pig farm nearby -- to get to Watkins Glen International. Maybe it's because of the low humidity and cooler temperatures at this 2.45-mile NASCAR mecca instead of the insane saunalike temperatures back home in North Carolina.

But I'm confused.

Mr. Calm, Cool and Collected Jimmie Johnson is angry, mad and fed up -- and talking about wanting to win more Nationwide Series races. Mr. Controversial Kyle Busch, who gets criticized for winning too many Nationwide races, is rational and talking about avoiding issues on and off the track.

It got to the point on Friday at The Glen where Johnson was asked whether this was the new Johnson, a reference usually reserved for Busch.

Was there some time warp we all passed through getting here? This isn't the NASCAR we're used to.

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson gave reporters an earful Friday about his run-in with Kurt Busch at Pocono Raceway.

You've got to love it, though.

Not that Johnson's demeanor had anything to do with Kyle. It's big brother Kurt Busch and their confrontation on and off the track this past weekend at Pocono that has Johnson's feathers ruffled in a way seldom seen.

But there was just a bit of irony that Kyle, often considered the anti-Johnson, followed the five-time champion's media opportunity on Friday.

"It's exciting for the fans to have that and to have that little bit of jawing back and forth," Kyle said. "They get something to get all up in arms about and get excited about.

"Hopefully, it carries over for those guys throughout the last 15 races of the year. It wouldn't bother me a bit. I certainly wouldn't want to be a part of it. Hopefully, we can keep our nose clean."

See, confusing.

The one thing this sport has been missing when it comes to rivalries is most seem to fade away within a week and involve wannabe champions. Johnson and Kurt Busch both are champions, and their dislike for each other has lasted since 2009, when these two had issues at Infineon and Chicagoland.

It doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon, either, and this weekend it has two opportunities to heat up with both drivers making a rare appearance in Saturday's Nationwide Series race (2 p.m. ET on ESPN).

As much as many of you hate Cup drivers dropping down to this series, this could be fun.

Don't get too excited, though. Johnson doesn't plan to settle this issue in the JR Motorsports car he'll drive, even though no points are on the line. He has too much respect for the crewmen who worked hard to build his car as well as those at Penske Racing who built Busch's car.

But if Busch starts mouthing off as he did on pit road after the Pocono Cup race, watch out.

"At the end of the day I'm not going to let him run his mouth," Johnson said of the 2004 Cup champion. "That's just kind of how it is."

Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch claims it was Jimmie Johnson who got into him on the final lap at Pocono on Sunday.

And that's really the heart of the issue. Johnson didn't turn into the "Vanilla Gorilla" because of what happened on the track. He wrote that off as hard racing, even if he and Busch agree to disagree on who provoked it.

What pushed Johnson over the edge was the same thing that pushed Jimmy Spencer over the edge in 2003 when he punched Busch in the nose at Michigan.

His mouth.

"When you're in that moment and you're having words with someone, and as the crowd starts to build around you and that guy all of a sudden starts to get brave, and you think it's over and walk away and that guy gets real tough ... I don't know about you, but that makes me mad," Johnson said as he recalled the exchange last week.

"The bottom line, he just started running his mouth. If you look over the years and what his mouth has done for him ... it got my biggest fan, Jimmy Spencer, to punch him in the face. It's led to issues with NASCAR officials on pit road. I think we all tune in weekly and wonder, what's he going to say to his crew guys? You look at what he said to Roger Penske, his car owner."

That's a lot of color from one who supposedly lacks it.

Kurt Busch wasn't available to defend himself on Friday, but during a Tuesday phone interview for ESPN's "NASCAR Now," he reiterated that it was Johnson getting into him on the final lap that led to a sheet-metal exchange that turned into a verbal war in which Johnson called him a "crybaby" and "smart ass."

He said the tape clearly showed that.

Johnson said the tape shows he clearly did nothing wrong.

"Coming off Turn 1 and Kurt gets into me side-drafting," Johnson said. "I try to break the side draft. From there, he felt it was necessary to run into the side of my car and tear my car up."

That had Johnson angry, but not to a boiling point. He wasn't even there after approaching Busch at his car on pit road.

"When I got out of the car and started talking to him, he had one level of interaction as he was sitting in his race car," Johnson said. "Then we get out of the car. Neither one of us was happy, but we're talking."

That's where this got good.

"The crowd started to build, and his bravery started to build," Johnson said of Busch. "I walked away, and he got tough. That's the part that frustrates me. That's where you saw me engage like we did. If you're not going to say something to the man's face, don't wait until he walks away."

Busch has a way of getting under the skin of drivers like few in the sport can. He does it in such a way that, as Johnson noted, sounds smart-ass.

Smart-ass can be more maddening than knocking somebody's bumper off at 200 mph.

It certainly got under Johnson's skin, which seemed impenetrable.

Maybe this is the key to ending Johnson's run. Maybe the rest of the garage will accept donations to pay Busch to irritate Johnson the rest of the season. He certainly touches a nerve that no one else has.

"It's going to be interesting to see how it shakes out," said Jeff Gordon, Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.

Odds are Johnson will compartmentalize his frustration over Busch the way he does everything else, and this won't affect his focus in the Chase. He already made it clear that this won't carry over onto the track -- even in the Nationwide race.

"If it's something verbal, a dislike situation between some drivers, you just make it difficult when they're around each other and shoot each other the bird on the straightaway and everything is fine," Johnson said. "When it turns into tearing up race cars, that part nobody wants to see happen."

In theory, Johnson doesn't want an issue with Busch heading into the Chase. He also admitted, "You just don't have that luxury at times."

Regardless of what happens, it's entertaining. It was particularly entertaining -- and confusing -- watching Johnson and Kyle Busch exchange roles on this chamber of commerce day.

Kyle even had fun when told that Johnson wants to improve on his Nationwide record -- one win in 91 races -- which is woeful compared to his Cup record of 54 wins in 348 races.

"Run more races, Jimmie," joked Kyle, who is tied with Mark Martin on the all-time Nationwide wins list with 49. "Do it. Give that a shot. I do plenty. Certainly wouldn't bother me a bit, but he's the one that always said it takes away from your program."

It does sound like something Johnson would say.

See how confusing this is.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.