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Fuel to the fire

NASCAR is running hot, especially when Gibbs, Childress drivers clash

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / July 17, 2011

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LOUDON, N.H. - No one can pinpoint the actual flashpoint of the NASCAR rivalry between the Joe Gibbs and Richard Childress teams.

“I just think it’s two competitive organizations that want to win and you wind up colliding at the front a lot of times,’’ said Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet fielded by Richard Childress Racing, who has been involved in numerous run-ins with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers. “I think it goes back before we even started. I think there was some things that happened before that.

“They’re two different styles of companies the way that they’re run. Usually it’s just because everybody is wanting to do the same thing and that’s win races.’’

While there have been plenty of skirmishes between the camps, including a well-documented flare-up between Childress and Kyle Busch after a truck race last month at Kansas, no one on either side of the hottest feud in the Sprint Cup Series is certain who fired the first salvo.

“There’s been separate incidents whether it’s been me and the 29, or the 31 and the 18, or the 29 and the 18 - all of ’em and the 18,’’ said Denny Hamlin, JGR driver of the No. 11 Toyota, referring to the No. 18 Toyota of teammate Busch, and the RCR Chevys of Harvick (No. 29) and Jeff Burton (No. 31).

“I don’t know if it’s been a coincidence, but both [teams] are very tight-knit groups,’’ Hamlin said. “I just think it’s a clash of personalities and things like that kind of go on. You have an older, experienced group over there and you have a younger group over here and, at times, we just don’t see eye to eye.’’

Main combatants Hamlin never has been at a loss for words, especially when they’re aimed at RCR and its drivers, but even he could not say who incited the hostilities. Efforts to reach the respective car owners were not successful.

“It’s tough to say when that point was,’’ Hamlin said. “Eventually, when someone drives you in unethical ways, you’re going to retaliate and I think Kyle felt that way with Kevin, and we’ve all experienced that before and so you’ve just got to take it in stride.’’

But the hard-charging Busch, who yesterday won his 100th NASCAR race and who enters today’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the Sprint Cup Series points leader, never has been one to take things in stride, especially on the track, where he knows only one speed: all-out.

Problem is, it is the same with Harvick, and Harvick and Busch have been at the center of one of the hottest, if not most entertaining, feuds on the circuit.

“You bring up a bad past and I’m not worried about that,’’ Busch said Friday when asked about his take on the rivalry. “To me, I’m worried about the future and what we can do to win a championship. Whatever it was that did or didn’t initiate it or start it doesn’t matter to me, it’s not the point. The point is trying to move on and get over things in your life and just try to make sure that you do things the best way you possibly know how to do it and let the rest take care of itself.’’

The latest brouhaha between Busch and Harvick happened after Regan Smith claimed his first Sprint Cup victory May 7 in the Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C.

Afterward, Busch, who finished 11th, parked his car on pit road behind Harvick, who finished 17th.

Harvick approached Busch’s car and took a swing. Busch drove away, pushing Harvick’s car into the inside retaining wall on pit road. Both drivers were summoned to NASCAR’s hauler and, a few days later, fined $25,000 each and placed on probation until June 15.

“We all have our space that we live in and I think Kevin enjoys some of those moments,’’ said Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR’s reigning five-time champion. “Through the stuff that’s gone on with Kyle, it’s been highly entertaining and well-executed.’’

“He does a good job at it,’’ Johnson added, chuckling. “Kyle, on the other hand, has found himself right in the crosshairs of the 29, plus he’s had some issues in tech, then a speeding ticket, and on and on. So he’s had different things going on with him that’s been different at the start of the year.’’

Run-ins aplenty Although Busch has been his favorite target, Harvick ran roughshod over all three JGR drivers last year.

“He’s none too particular, that’s for sure,’’ said Hamlin, who had a run-in with Harvick last September in Dover, Del. “It’s just his personality, his mind-set of the way he races, and we all have to know that.’’

Last June at Pocono Harvick punted Joey Logano, driver of the No. 20 JGR Toyota, toward the end of the race, sparking a pit-road shoving match between both drivers and their crews when Logano came charging toward Harvick’s pit box.

Still fuming afterward, Logano took a verbal shot at Harvick and his wife, Delana, who often sits atop his pit box on race days adorned in a firesuit identical to her husband’s, saying, “It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do.’’ Logano got his comeuppance the following week at Michigan when Harvick blasted Tom Logano, Joey’s father, for meddling in his son’s career after he was seen on pit road exhorting the 20-year-old to handle his business. NASCAR officials revoked the elder Logano’s all-access credential for the remainder of the season.

“His father has no place in this,’’ Harvick said. “He needs to step back and act like the rest of the dads and be happy that his kid is here. This isn’t Little League baseball anymore.’’

Hamlin found himself in Harvick’s crosshairs when Hamlin criticized RCR and Clint Bowyer after Bowyer’s victory in last year’s Sylvania 300, the Chase opener at NHMS. Hamlin said the win was tainted because NASCAR hit Bowyer with a $150,000 fine and docked him 150 points, knocking him back 10 spots from second to 12th in the points race.

When Hamlin, who finished second, claimed to have “the fastest legal car at New Hampshire,’’ Harvick took umbrage and reacted the next week at Dover, where he slammed into the rear of Hamlin’s car during the first practice session and wrecked both their cars.

“We watched it at Dover there in that practice session,’’ Johnson said. “I was right in front of it all. Chad [Knaus, his crew chief] was telling me what was going on behind me. I was like, ‘Dude, you wouldn’t believe what’s going on back here.’ ’’

“It was amazing to watch Kevin step up for RCR in general when nothing was directed at him, personally, or straight at the 29,’’ Johnson added. “We all take a lot of pride in our teams and Kevin wasn’t going to let comments like that affect RCR and he was going to make his point come across.’’

Said Bowyer, “I mean, I don’t even know why sometimes people do stuff. Why would you even say that? Why would you say anything? I don’t know. There’s not a whole lot of respect there . . . When Kevin went back and got him, yeah, I had a smile on my face. I thought it was funny.’’

Hands-off policy In keeping with a “have at it’’ policy adopted before the start of the 2010 season, aimed at loosening the reins on the drivers, NASCAR officials allowed them to police themselves.

“When it comes to conflicts on the racetrack, every weekend there’s 42 guys that want to beat the other 42 guys,’’ said NASCAR president Mike Helton. “So that’s an inherent rivalry in our sport. When it becomes maybe more personal between a couple of them, we watch that and we let it play itself out. We don’t necessarily encourage it. What we do encourage is them being racecar drivers on the racetrack and not worrying about looking over their shoulder at us.’’

NASCAR officials took that same hands-off approach when Harvick got into it with Busch in the finale last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Harvick turned Busch late in the season-ending race, resulting in Busch finishing 32d.

“He raced me like a clown all day - three-wide, on the back bumper, running into me, and I just had enough,’’ Harvick said at a news conference, at which he was flanked by Busch’s teammate, Hamlin.

“Sounds like how your [RCR] teammates raced me all day,’’ Hamlin cracked.

To which Harvick shot back, “Yeah, well, I just parked yours.’’

Shaking his head, Hamlin muttered, “God, it never ends.’’

Busch said of Harvick afterward, “He’s just a guy who doesn’t have his head on straight, apparently, today. I thought everything was good. I talked to him prerace in the drivers’ meeting and all of that, but he’s such a two-faced guy, it just doesn’t matter.’’

The rivalry continued into 2011 with Harvick and Busch tangling on pit road at Darlington.

Owning up But things seemed to take an ugly turn during a Camping World Truck Series race June 4 at Kansas Speedway when Childress confronted Busch in the garage area. Childress was upset Busch tapped his driver, Joey Coulter, on the cool-down lap after Coulter passed Busch on the last lap to finish a career-best fifth.

According to newspaper reports, the 65-year-old Childress removed his watch and punched Busch three times in the face before throwing him to the ground.

NASCAR officials investigated the incident and hit Childress with a $150,000 fine and placed him on probation until Dec. 31.

“A lot of the time, Richard sides with the drivers, more times than not,’’ Harvick said. “We’ve all got his back. As you can tell, he’s always got ours. It is fun to drive for a guy that has got the passion and the desire to do what you have to do to be a part of this sport. He is a great guy and I love being on his team.’’

Donations came pouring into RCR to defray the cost of Childress’s fine, but the owner paid with his own funds, sending the unsolicited donations to the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma. The following week at Pocono, Childress stood in front of one of his team’s haulers in the garage area and addressed the matter with a one-time statement.

“The main thing is I take all the responsibility for my actions,’’ he said at the time. “I am very passionate about this sport. I am passionate about my race teams, our fans, and I let my emotions get . . . come in front of my passion. But that is behind us.

“I agree that NASCAR should have done something with me. I don’t agree that they didn’t handle the situation that happened on the cool-down lap. Hopefully Kyle and myself will both end up learning something from this.’’

Said Busch, “If he came to me and was so upset about it, I would have offered him money to fix it. I’m a [truck] owner in this sport - I know there’s going to be torn-up equipment here and there sometimes, whatever. I will say that if I didn’t roll out of the throttle, we both would have crashed off of Turn 4. The kid did what he was supposed to do on the last lap there.

“We raced each other for 18 laps and I was having fun with him trying to keep him back and I thought I had it done and then he got on my inside down the backstretch there and pulled a slide job through 3 and 4 and kind of squeezed me up there.’’

Which resulted in what Busch thought was a congratulatory tap on Coulter.

“I had two options,’’ Busch said. “Lift and let him beat me, which is fine, no problem. We’re racing for fifth in the Truck Series - [it] wasn’t for a win. Or crash the both of us. It wasn’t necessary for any of that.’’

The hostilities have ceased, for now. NASCAR has seen to that with its sanctions. But just because the combatants have turned the page, it doesn’t mean they have turned the other cheek.

“I’ve moved on with the stipulations that NASCAR has put on the situation,’’ Harvick said. “As far as the situation itself, those things don’t go away.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.