Auto racing: Gibbs tries to quickly defuse Busch-Hamlin tension
AP Sports Writer
CONCORD, N.C. — The angry Kyle Busch was back. The driver who always seems to run up front, yet can also come unglued at any moment, had parked his mangled car within inches of Denny Hamlin's hauler.
The All-Star race was still going on late Saturday night, but car owner Joe Gibbs knew he had to act immediately to avoid a potentially season-altering crisis.
The week began with talk of Busch or Hamlin, who have combined to win five of the last seven Sprint Cup points races, perhaps finally ending Jimmie Johnson's four-year reign as series champion.
It would be more difficult to do if these Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were rolling around on the floor trading punches, since Busch had just declared on the radio that, "I swear to God, I am going to kill (him)."
Gibbs hustled to catch up to Busch, who climbed out of his ruined car, punched the air and stormed into Hamlin's trailer. Hamlin was still on the track, but Busch was waiting to confront him for his move with eight laps left that caused Busch to hit the wall and end his chances of winning $1 million.
Gibbs, the Super Bowl-winning coach with the Washington Redskins before switching sports, relied heavily on his people skills.
"I think in pro sports, if you've been on the sidelines or you've been in racing you're going to have people get mad about things," Gibbs said. "It's spur of the moment type things. I think what was much more meaningful is we met in there."
Not before forming a plan. Gibbs joined Busch in Hamlin's hauler. After Busch's brother, Kurt, won the race and Hamlin finished fourth, Hamlin was told to park his car at the edge of the garage. He was met by several team members, and escorted to the suddenly crowded hauler.
Gibbs had ordered the incident — in which Hamlin tried to block his teammate's attempt to pass him for the lead in the closing laps — cued up on their video monitor.
At first, Busch had no use for watching TV.
"It was the old Kyle for a little while," Hamlin said, referring to the hothead reputation Busch has been trying to shed of late. "Then the new Kyle came and met with us."
With Gibbs mediating, Hamlin and Busch watched the video and told their sides.
"Kyle brought up a great point. What should we expect when we come to this race?" Hamlin said. "Do we need to have a meeting beforehand and say, 'OK, we don't share the same jerseys today, is it every man for himself?' My feeling was, 10 laps to go, I'm afraid so, we're not teammates. I think we both have an understanding of that and it's good from here on forward.
"Kyle is the most talented person in this garage and he gets it. He just gets a little hot under the collar sometimes."
Gibbs, too, insisted the meeting ended peacefully and with the issue behind them.
"You've got good cars. You've got good drivers. It can happen between teammates because they're competitive and both of them are wanting to win a race," he said. "We love that in both guys."
Their insistence that the issue was resolved would have been easier to believe if Busch hadn't sneaked out a side door of the hauler, ran around the front away from where reporters had gathered, and slipped in a side door of his own hauler.
And he wasn't joining in the happy talk. Busch wasn't talking at all.
"He has a championship winning team and I have a championship winning team," Hamlin said. "Our wheels are moving and we don't need to put the brakes on, especially in an incident in a race that doesn't matter anyway."
Indeed, all this turmoil and there were no points on the line Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. But they'll be back at the same track next weekend for NASCAR's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600.
Busch is second in the points standings and Hamlin fifth. JGR seems poised to end Hendrick Motorsports' dominance in this series — if its drivers can keep their cool.
"It's a good problem to have for our team," Hamlin insisted. "For two guys to be wanting to go for the win like they are, it's all you can ask for. Myself, I'm so confident that one of the two of us are going to win that 600 next weekend."
After a down year last season, by his standards, Busch is rounding into form. He's won two of the past three Sprint Cup races. He won the Truck Series race over the weekend for a staggering 70th victory in NASCAR's top three series at age 25.
But Busch has had numerous run-ins in the past. It was just three years ago that he was feuding with his brother, Kurt, in this race, prompting Kurt Busch to joke that "I'm not eating any Kellogg's any time soon," in reference to Kyle's sponsor.
Hamlin, too, had a dispute with former teammate Tony Stewart in 2007. Gibbs cut short a vacation to mediate that problem.
Gibbs was in the same role again late Saturday night, and confident it won't linger.
"No, I don't have a knack," he said. "I think what was real good was both of them wanted to talk it out, which was good. We talked it out and I think we had a good discussion about it. I think we're ready to go race the 600 and race as teammates."