Kurt Busch thought he and Ryan Newman were friends. He’s learned the hard way this week that he was mistaken.
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Maybe that’s how it goes between drivers looking to lock down jobs for next year?
Busch is once again in the starring role as NASCAR’s resident villain, this time for a series of incidents involving Newman and his team last week at Darlington Raceway. It’s led to a series of scathing remarks from Newman, who has accused Busch in various interviews of having a ”chemical imbalance” and lying about why he ran into the back of Newman’s car after Saturday night’s race.
On Friday, Busch offered his version of events for the first time. He seemed agitated about the entire episode, and characterized it as the kind of ”WWE-type action” that fans enjoy.
”This is good for our sport. This is WWE-type action,” Busch said, snapping at reporters gathered behind his team hauler at Charlotte Motor Speedway. ”This is fun. This is entertainment, right guys?”
The drama comes as NASCAR heads into Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star race, which is traditionally billed as no-holds-barred event with nothing more at stake than the $1 million prize.
Busch goes into the event fresh off a $50,000 he received Tuesday for what NASCAR said was reckless driving on pit road at Darlington and a post-race incident with Newman’s crew members.
It all began when a flat tire caused Busch to wreck with six laps remaining in the race. Newman, who was running behind Busch at the time, also spun as traffic stacked up trying to avoid Busch.
Busch then headed to pit road, and in his desire to not go a lap down, apparently sped through Newman’s pit stall. Some of Newman’s crew members were over the wall at the time, and complained they couldn’t have been hurt.
Busch insisted Friday no one was in danger. After the race, Busch ran into the back of Newman’s parked car, but said he was taking his helmet off at the time and didn’t see Newman’s car.
He was greeted on pit road by several angry crew members, which led to yelling and slight shoving.
In addition to the fine against Busch, NASCAR also placed Newman crew chief Tony Gibson on probation through June 27 for failing to control his team, and crew member Andrew Rueger was fined $5,000 and placed on probation for failing to comply with a directive from a NASCAR official.
Busch’s motorhome driver, Craig Strickler, was fined $5,000 and placed on probation through the end of the year for interfering with a member of Fox’s broadcast team.
”I didn’t have a problem with Newman. I didn’t have a problem with his crew guys. Then things just really got out of control in a hurry,” Busch said. ”I was taking my helmet off. Which Newman said he thought that was a lie. That’s the honest truth.”
Busch and Newman spent three seasons together at Penske Racing, and Busch pushed Newman to the victory in the 2008 Daytona 500. So Busch was initially surprised to hear Newman attack his character after Darlington.
”Newman and I were friends. We were great teammates, and he needs to check his trophy case on the Daytona 500 trophy that I helped him get years ago,” Busch said. ”We’ve always been great friends. There was no need for his comments afterward.”
So then why would Newman say such things?
”I think we are both looking at the same scenario coming up here in the next few summer months,” Busch said.
He may be on to something.
Neither driver currently has a job lined up for next season. Newman is in the final year of his contract at Stewart-Haas Racing, and although team co-owner Tony Stewart said this week he’s interested in signing Newman to an extension, there’s no current deal.
Busch, meanwhile, is riding out the season with Phoenix Racing. He landed with the underfunded team after splitting with Penske in December following an angry tirade toward an ESPN reporter in last season’s finale.
Those past situations made Busch an easy target for Newman’s post-Darlington critique.
”It’s easy to see and it’s easy to say that Kurt blew a fuse again,” Newman told SI.com after the race. ”I’m not sure why he did it and tried to run over our guys and NASCAR officials. And nobody is … (Busch was) so frustrated that he doesn’t know how to deal with his anger.”
Busch is struggling to overcome that reputation, which took another hit during last November’s finale. His in-car camera caught him making an obscene gesture, and fan recorded him delivering a profanity-laced tirade toward an ESPN reporter in the garage.
NASCAR fined Busch $50,000 for his behavior, and his split with Penske was announced shortly after.
”I’ve been fined the most probably of any driver, and I’ve probably paid it out of my pocket more than any driver,” Busch said Friday. ”Is my strike zone bigger than others? Yeah. It might be bigger than others, but I don’t have a problem with it.”