Kyle steals spotlight from big brother
CONCORD, N.C. -- We're standing in the darkness outside Denny Hamlin's hauler in the garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway late Saturday night. Smoke is filling the air as fireworks go off on the frontstretch where Kurt Busch is celebrating his first victory in the Sprint All-Star Race.
We should be focused on the driver of Penske Racing's No. 2. He ran a great race, rallying from two brushes with the wall to take the lead seven laps from the finish with a spectacular move that took him from third to first in a matter of seconds.
Instead, we're waiting for another Busch.
Kurt's younger brother thought he had this 100-lap race won going into the final 10-lap segment. He had a run on leader Hamlin on the high side with eight laps remaining when, in his mind, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate crowded him into the wall.
Six laps later, after Kyle Busch crashed out for good, he shouted over his radio, "Somebody better keep me away from Denny Hamlin after this race. I am going to kill that motherf-----."
Busch then parked his crumpled car in front of Hamlin's hauler, climbed out, punched the air with his fist and stormed inside to wait for his teammate.
That's why we are here.
While Kurt deserves accolades for winning the million-dollar first prize, this is where the drama is. When teammates fight, as we saw earlier this season with Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, it can cause problems if not nipped in the bud.
Rick Hendrick took care of that, telling his drivers to put their differences aside so they could race for a championship.
Joe Gibbs was inside the 11 hauler giving the same speech to Hamlin and Busch.
"When something like this happens, it's best that you make sure that you talk it out," Gibbs said.
Hamlin later said this is a good problem to have. You'd much rather have two drivers battling for wins when such an incident occurs than fighting for 20th.
From what we've seen the past two months, Hamlin and Busch will be racing for a lot of wins, maybe even the championship. Busch has won two of the last three point races. Hamlin has won three of the last seven.
If Johnson's four-year run as champion is to end, one of these drivers likely will have to do it.
What they can't do is knock each other off along the way, which again is why we're here. We hoped to have Kyle talk about it, but he disappeared into the darkness from the side of Hamlin's hauler without uttering a word.
He literally ran.
This, for the record, is the old Kyle, the one Hamlin said a few weeks ago never went away. He just never thought he'd be on the end of the next tirade. He never thought his teammate would say he wanted to kill him.
"It's Kyle in the moment," Hamlin said with a smile. "He's said worse things about me I'm sure at other times. I told him my job as a leader is to do everything I can do to win that race. This race in specific is a much different beast than what a points race is. I think he understands that now."
We'll have to take Hamlin's word for it at the moment.
Hamlin has been here before. He had a situation with then-teammate Tony Stewart a few years ago that simmered until Gibbs interrupted his vacation to fly to Chicago and have a closed-door meeting with the two.
So he understands that as important as it is for teammates to compete, it's equally important for them to get along.
"I understand how important it is for team moral," Hamlin said. "When two teams skirmish between each other, when two drivers don't like each other, all you do is go backwards. Right now, I feel he has a championship-winning team and I have a championship-winning team.
"Our wheels are moving right now. We don't need to put the brakes on."
Hamlin's right. JGR has been dominant lately. They've put the heat on HMS, specifically Johnson, to the point Hendrick said the organization had lapped his.
That's a stretch. Johnson had the dominant car much of this night, winning the second and third segments. He was in position to win this one, too, before crashing while going underneath Hamlin to bring out the final caution.
But before that Busch felt the race was his to win. He shouted that loudly over his radio.
Unfortunately, that was the last thing we actually heard from him. Crew chief Dave Rogers told his driver to keep his composure, not to say a word to anybody.
"We have a championship to win," Rogers said.
He may if Busch can indeed keep his composure.
Let's turn the focus back to the other Busch, the one who won this race. He has a championship, capturing the inaugural Chase in 2004. His maturity and poise kept him in position to win this race.
It could keep him in position to win another championship.
The question is: Can younger brother win one acting like he did on this night? Can he be consistent enough over a 36-race schedule when there are constant conversations about the old and new Kyle Busch?
Winning crew chief Steve Addington, who moved from Kyle to Kurt this year, understands what we're talking about. One of the reasons he was fired was because JGR officials didn't believe he had what it took to get Kyle focused enough to win a title.
"Kyle has his own personality," Addington said. "That's just Kyle. I don't know what would change him or anything like that. I love the kid to death. I had a lot of success with Kyle.
"He has his moments. That's the way it is with him. You guys have got to get used to it."
Addington went on to explain how Kyle is trying to change and be much calmer inside the car. And he has been to a degree, showing his newfound patience in last week's win at Dover.
Then something like what happened with Hamlin comes up and Kyle takes two steps backward.
"The difference [between Kyle and Kurt] is being mature and being through the up-and-down seasons," Addington said. "That's my driver right there in the blue suit. And that's all I'm worried about."
Fortunately, we returned from the darkness in time to hear the driver in the blue suit talk about his big night. But most of the conversation going forward will be about the reason we were behind the 11.
"The point is that if you have good cars and good drivers, it can happen," Gibbs said. "We've seen it happen to other teams. It can certainly happen to us."
It probably will again, and then we'll all be back out here again.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.