Kyle puts on his best teammate face
CONCORD, N.C. -- Kyle Busch said all the right things from the infield media center Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. How he really didn't want to kill teammate Denny Hamlin as he yelled over his car radio after their incident in Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race. How he is moving on and plans to be a good teammate moving forward.
He just didn't sound happy about it.
That's a good thing.
If Busch were happy, then we might have to change his nickname from "Rowdy" to "Cryle," as many of you non-Kyle fans already call him. But he's not backing down.
Busch still believes Hamlin was in the wrong to crowd him into the wall when he had a good run for the lead in the final segment of the $1 million race. He refuses to take back the "kill" comment or apologize for parking outside of Hamlin's hauler and waiting inside with team owner Joe Gibbs to confront his teammate.
"We're moving forward," said Busch, speaking publicly on the incident for the first time. "Do I regret saying what I said over the radio? Absolutely not. It's heat of the moment. That is who I am. That's my expression. I'm not going to be sorry for what I say. It's freedom of speech.
"Take it for what it's worth. Take it out of context and use it as seriously as you want. I mean, it wasn't joking, but it wasn't going to happen."
No, Busch wasn't going to kill Hamlin, words that escalated the drama to new heights.
"Right," Busch said. "With what? With my great looks."
Busch smiled at this point. It was one of the few times he smiled during the 24-minute interview. It's one thing to be on the defensive when you know you've done wrong, it's another when you believe you've done right and there's nothing you can say or do to change it.
But that goes both ways. Hamlin doesn't seem any more anxious to truly get along with Busch than Busch does with Hamlin. He slammed his teammate much harder during Thursday's interview session than he did after the All-Star Race, saying Busch brings most of the drama onto himself.
"Each year I think Kyle is going to grow out of it," Hamlin said. "Until he puts it all together that's when he'll become a champion."
Hamlin took several other shots at his teammate, the most pointed when asked about the leadership role at JGR since Stewart left.
"Somebody has got to be the leader," he said. "It ain't going to be Kyle."
"It's so much fun to watch it take place, but when you're living it, it sucks," the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion said. "To walk into microphones and think for a few days how you need to handle it, what you want to say, your statements [that] you don't know how they're going to be received what people think."
The good thing about Busch is he didn't think much about what he said. He simply said what was on his mind.
"Of course I was heated after the incident," Busch said. "It surprised me, and I wouldn't have expected my teammate to race me that way. But he's the leader, he's got the racetrack and I now understand that."
Busch understands, but he doesn't agree. He believes Hamlin should have given him space to complete his run, reminding us what Mark Martin, Joey Logano and others would have done. He took offense that Hamlin said he would have done the same thing if the situation were reversed.
"You can't put words in a person's mouth," Busch said. "I don't feel I would have done the same thing. I race with respect that I learned with Mark Martin and those guys."
He learned that well.
"He's aggressive, but he keeps it in his area," Martin said. "He is incredibly respectful."
People talk about the new Busch. That is the new Busch.
It wasn't that long ago that Tony Stewart and other drivers said Busch was out of control. Stewart went so far as to say Busch was going to kill somebody if he didn't settle down.
That Busch is gone. He may get into the wall driving over his head or make a mistake that costs him the race, but you seldom see him making mistakes that cost others the race.
"I had my bad points," Busch said. "Since learning from Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and those guys I feel I've gotten better. Even though it was an All-Star Race, like I said, I was surprised that happened. I wouldn't have expected it.
"I don't typically run myself into the fence."
This doesn't sound as though it's over, but we all know it is. Busch is smart enough to know that when the boss says "move on," it's time to move on whether he likes it or not. It's the same reason Gordon and Johnson moved on from their two-week drama in which Gordon became so frustrated after a run-in at Talladega that he said, "The 48 is testing my patience, I can tell you that."
Rick Hendrick got his drivers together on the phone and nipped it in the bud before it went any further. Gibbs was much more proactive, watching the end of the All-Star Race inside Hamlin's hauler with Busch and requesting Hamlin meet them there afterward instead of letting it boil for a few days.
He let both drivers tell their side of the story, made both watch the replay and let them hash it out some more.
Gibbs then met with everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing on Tuesday and said it was time to move on, challenging the organization to continue the level of success (five wins) it has had the last seven races.
"He's not going to let any one person tear the organization down," said Greg Zipadelli, the crew chief for JGR's Joey Logano.
Zipadelli has seen the Pro Football Hall of Fame coach in action up close as Stewart's former crew chief. In 2007, Gibbs interrupted his vacation to fly to Chicago and defuse a situation between Stewart and Hamlin.
I believe it's behind us. We want to be able to win a championship, and ultimately working together is the best thing for us.” -- Kyle Busch
"It's his livelihood, and he does a good job of protecting it," Zipadelli said. "He really understands when things like that happen having been in professional sports, knowing the attitudes that when you're competitive and things don't go your way and you have one side about particular things and the other person has a different story.
"He's good at talking through it."
Gibbs went so far as to put out a video blog explaining the whole scenario.
"Basically, what it comes down to is these two guys are teammates," Zipadelli said. "Up here you don't win without good teammates. ... Having said that, the good news, in order for us to be up there, we have to have real good cars and real good drivers."
Gibbs has that, arguably better today than at any point in the organization's history. Hamlin has won three races and Busch two, and both are in the top five in points. Each is a bona fide threat to end Johnson's reign.
So as Hamlin said after the late-night hauler meeting with Busch, this is a good problem to have.
"When you have teammates and they run up front, you're going to have issues," Zipadelli said. "The good thing is Denny is just so damn cool about things right now."
Busch doesn't always keep his cool, which is what makes him the fiery competitor fans love to love and hate. People talk about him changing; that part hopefully never will.
"It's hard for me to say I need to change," Busch said. "Yeah, there's some aspects that aren't that great. To me, I am who I am. I guess that's what makes a colorful personality. M&Ms has the most colorful fans. Maybe we need a most colorful driver award."
There's no denying Busch has cornered that market. The problem with moving forward is only one driver can win each week, and when your teammate is taking wins away from you it's not easy for a driver of Busch's personality to handle.
But Busch is handling it. As the owner of his own Truck series team, he understands more than ever the importance of teammates at least coexisting without drama.
"I believe it's behind us," Busch said. "We want to be able to win a championship, and ultimately working together is the best thing for us. ... My frustration right now is continually having to talk about the same thing over and over again.
"You're trying to hit something. I feel like I'm answering what you're asking. For me, I'm over the Denny Hamlin issue. It's done. We're moving forward."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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