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SECOND PLACE

Dustin Long, Greensboro News Record

BUSCH-EDWARDS FEUD GETTING ENTERTAINING

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Enjoy this. Savor it. Rejoice in this rare spectacle of racing: A rivalry.
NASCAR fans have longed for such a mano-a-mano battle, but the combatants rarely fulfilled those hopes.

Now, fans can debate something other than driver swaps and ticket prices.
Kyle or Carl?

No need for last names. You know them. They're the ones winning more often than anyone else. They finished first and second Saturday night but the race between the two turned personal at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Now, there's no middle ground. Pick a side.

Was Carl Edwards wrong to bump Busch out of the lead with 31 laps to go and take the win? Did Kyle Busch act like a spoiled child when he ran into the side of Edwards' car after the race? Was Edwards a poor winner for then spinning Busch?

Just as they did on the track, neither driver relented afterward.

"We'll race him like that in the Chase if that's the way he wants to race,'' Busch said upon finishing second to Edwards.

"We'll see what he says when he gets wrecked.''

Edwards understood Busch's anger, but Edwards showed no remorse for his winning bump.
"Let's make it real clear, I'm not apologizing for it,'' he said.

Edwards' comment came well after he took the checkered flag, giving him plenty of time to come up with a delicate apology if he wanted.

Not this time.

"I feel like this ... score's even,'' he said of his budding feud with Busch. "It just cost him more than it cost me at the time. That's the way it is.''

Edwards said he paid Busch back for an incident during the May Nationwide race at Richmond. Edwards said Busch "just smoked the back bumper of my car'' and knocked Edwards out of the way as they raced for position.

When Edwards pestered Busch late in Saturday's race, Busch's rear bumper was a large target. Debating how aggressive to race, Edwards relied on a racing proverb a veteran once shared after Edwards confronted him about an on-track incident.

"He said,'' Edwards stated, not naming the wise elder, "I just had to look at your rear bumper and decide if you would do this to me and you had before.''

With the Richmond incident still vivid, Edwards' decision was easy. Bye-bye Cup win No. 9 for Busch.
As car owner Joe Gibbs consoled and calmed Busch after the race, Gibbs' son, J.D., approached Edwards.

J.D. Gibbs' message?

"You reap what you sow,'' Edwards said Gibbs told him.

"I explained to him that's why that happened that way,'' Edwards said.

Actions on the track, words off it and now days to discuss. This is what NASCAR has failed to deliver to fans for years. Numerous winners each season, a car meant to be equal and too friendly relations among drivers have kept NASCAR from enjoying a rivalry that triggered interest.

Fans tried to make Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt rivals but their best years on the track rarely matched. Plus, they were business partners off the track. Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon had their battles – often at the short tracks – but it didn't carry over to other speedways.

The last great rivalries? Those involved Waltrip, Petty and Pearson not Johnson, Stewart and Martin.
Kyle and Carl? There's no guarantee it will last. It could collapse under the weight of fan expectations, but Saturday was the needed spark to set it free.

Such an incident seemed inevitable. They've won seven of the last nine races. They've finished first and second three times during that stretch. They've combined to lead more than half the laps run in those races.

Running that close to each other leads to conflict. Saturday night, it did.

While fans might not have seen all the wrecking at Bristol as they like, they saw a rivalry debut with barbs and bent sheet metal.

"They keep talking about rivalries,'' Edwards said. "We might have one now.''

It couldn't come soon enough for many fans.

NASCAR HITS GOLD, AND FANS WILL LOVE IT

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Forget "American Idol,'' the best reality TV show features NASCAR drivers, not wanna-be singers.

The music show also has a loudmouth bloke, but NASCAR's group fights, cheats and features Junior. During its opening weekend of the season, NASCAR delivered all three to fans fresh from racing hibernation.

For a sport that has seen TV ratings decline and attendance wane, the last three days created a buzz that has been missing.

It's all a NASCAR fan could want. Then again, this might be too much for many. Water cooler conversations could last longer than political speeches after NASCAR's spectacular opening act at Daytona International Speedway.

But what to talk about first?

• The punch Tony Stewart allegedly threw at Kurt Busch in the NASCAR hauler Friday night?
• Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout in his first race for Hendrick Motorsports?
• Or what about Sunday's Daytona 500 pole qualifying, where two of the sport's most polarizing figures – Chad Knaus and Michael Waltrip – dominated the front row.

Knaus is the crew chief for two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who won the pole at 187.075 mph. Waltrip qualified second.

After all this, NASCAR chairman Brian France is likely smiling. Even if his plan to let drivers be more expressive was a public relations move, as Earnhardt suggested last week, France found a pot of gold.

Who could have imagined that the first time drivers tested France's new policy, it would come in the NASCAR hauler in front of series officials?

Nobody publicly confirmed that Stewart hit Busch in the hauler, but no one denied it. Everyone who was in the hauler hid behind the Las Vegas motto of what happens here stays here.

The mystery fuels fans, giving them something to debate. Did Stewart do it or didn't he? Should he or shouldn't he?

Both drivers say they've moved on – and moved over, giving each plenty of room to race Saturday night. Fans haven't and won't. That's good for NASCAR. It's something to talk about.

Just as good for NASCAR is the re-emergence of Junior Nation. No longer red – well, some haven't updated their wardrobe yet – Earnhardt fans are making the sport greener. Not eco-friendly, but econ-friendly. All that cash is going for those Earnhardt T-shirts, die-cast cars and other souvenirs.
Earnhardt's five merchandise trailers positioned around this 2.5-mile speedway are more than any other driver has for Speedweeks.

Saturday wasn't about dollar signs. That comes later. The Shootout was about Earnhardt's first victory in a Cup race in more than 20 months, back when Sam Hornish, now a Cup rookie, won the Indianapolis 500.

Giddy, Earnhardt repeatedly screamed how cool it was to have returned to victory lane as his fans rocked the grandstands. The 11-time winner at Daytona later talked about what the track means to him and how he wants to keep "whupping it.''

He might do that in his Hendrick ride, sending his fans into a frenzy.

NASCAR couldn't ask for more. Yet it got it Sunday when Johnson won his second Daytona 500 pole.
While Johnson tries to broaden his fan appeal, fans have a strong opinion about Knaus, Johnson's often-penalized crew chief. Many praise Knaus' expertise, but others complain that NASCAR suspended him for only 10 races the past two seasons.

Let the debate begin – Johnson's car passed NASCAR's inspection Sunday night.

So did the car of fellow front-row starter Waltrip. A year ago, Waltrip gave an impassioned speech after series officials found an illegal substance in his fuel after Daytona 500 qualifying. He made the race but missed the next 11 and saw his fledging three-car team crumble financially, nearly into ruins.
"I can't tell you how many dollars were lost and how much credibility was taken away by that,'' Waltrip said Sunday.

It was a serious Waltrip speaking, not the happy-go-lucky goof that fans often see on TV. For those who back Mikey, as they call him, this day was something to talk about.

So many things to discuss.

Maybe it's a good thing the track is silent the next two days. Fans can debate what has happened and argue about what's to come.

IS THE TIME RIPE FOR A TONY STEWART CHARGE?

SONOMA, Calif. – You keep waiting on Tony Stewart and yet there is nothing. It's like staring into the evening sky on July 4 and seeing darkness instead of light.

No wins. No tantrums. No decisions.

And maybe no Chase for the two-time champion.

Stewart sizzling in summer is as common as soaring temperatures, but this season is turning into one of those "staycations" people are taking this year.

It's going nowhere.

Stewart's 10th-place finish Sunday at Infineon Raceway pushed his winless streak to a career-long 30 races, a drought that has the driver testy and his trophy case dusty.

That's not entirely a bad thing. Stewart often is best when trouble bubbles either from lack of success or self-control. He thrives on stress and conflict.

Maybe this cocktail of losing, falling in the points and questions about where he'll race next year can revive a season where he's the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver not to have won a Sprint Cup race.
Ten races remain until the Chase begins, so time remains for a patented Stewart charge. Races at Daytona, Chicago and Indianapolis approach and he's won at each track within the last two seasons. Yet the way his year has gone, it's easy to wonder if he's destined to miss the Chase.

How else to explain it? Stewart has come within six miles of winning NASCAR's two biggest races – the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Instead, he lost both, is 11th in the standings and 19 points from falling out of the top 12.

He last won at Watkins Glen in August. Thirteen different drivers have won since. Already, there are thoughts that if Stewart leaves Gibbs' team after this season, he'll be replaced by an 18-year-old.
Somewhere, somehow Stewart needs a spark. Maybe it will come from his friend Kevin Harvick. Or is it former friend?

Harvick triggered Stewart's demise Sunday when he spun late in the race. Harvick slid into Jamie McMurray, running third, who ricocheted into Stewart, running second. Their tire smoke created a man-made San Francisco fog bank as they lost several positions.

It's the second time this season Stewart has had contact with Harvick late in a race while in second and lost Stewart several spots. They had a run-in at Bristol in March. Those incidents cost Stewart about 85 points. Add that to his current total and he's ninth in the standings.

Had Stewart's car not suffered a flat tire while leading with three laps left at Charlotte, he would have won there in May and collected about 75 more points. Give him those points and he's sixth in the standings, just ahead of Jeff Gordon.

Stewart's rival is his opposite this season. Gordon has struggled with his car's handling but when things seem bleak, he's managed a top-10 or even a top-five finish.

It happened again Sunday at Infineon Raceway. Gordon complained about his car and even crew chief Steve Letarte was mystified with the vehicle's stubbornness. Timely cautions and problems to others helped Gordon finish third and climb three spots in the season standings.

While Gordon marveled at his fortune, Stewart stewed about a season slipping away. A few expletives and noticeable frustration laced his radio conversation with his crew after the incident. He said little to reporters after the race.

He's said little since late April about his future with Gibbs. Stewart admitted a couple of months ago he had received offers to drive for other teams although his contract with Gibbs goes through the 2009 season. One offer includes partial ownership in Haas CNC Racing. Where the 37-year-old Stewart goes, though, is a topic of debate in the garage each week.

Team president J.D. Gibbs admitted this weekend the uncertainty around Stewart's future is "a nuisance" for all involved. Stewart downplays any impact on his team. Gibbs admits many of Stewart's crew has been hardened by other hardships.

They've had nothing like this. Neither has Stewart. His discontent can only fester so long before something happens.