Kyle Busch appears angry. When drivers don’t want to throw fuel on the fire but also don’t want to apologize or clarify their actions, they respond to questions the way Busch did for more than 40 seconds outside the NASCAR hauler Friday morning at Phoenix Raceway.
“Everything is great,” Busch said five times.
While “on to Phoenix” might be the mantra for NASCAR, its teams and even some fans, no words or actions since last week have created a sense that the Vegas hangover has waned or disappeared from the rearview mirror.
Each time Busch said “everything is great,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said it pretty much exactly the same way. He didn’t try to emphasize it more or make it more convincing.
What his mannerisms said was exactly the opposite of the words coming out of his mouth. Those mannerisms indicate he still feels wronged by Logano and that Logano made a stupid mistake Busch won’t soon forgive. Busch spoke more after qualifying Friday, and indicated it is time to move on but he doesn’t feel any different about what happened.
In last week’s race, Logano accelerated heavily into the corner after he and Busch passed a wounded Brad Keselowski, a move that looks like a great one when done without crashing and appears a bad call in judgment — even under the pretense of last-lap hard racing — when it results in a crash.
The move, Logano said, didn’t rank as a crazy move that he felt would merit payback or that he feels Busch owes him one.
“Was it a big mistake? Not to start but it obviously had a big reaction after a small little wiggle,” Logano said. “It’s hard racing the last lap. We’re racing to the checkered flag. I had no reason to do anything on purpose, that’s for sure, for fourth place or whatever — that would make no sense.
“For me, it was just really racing hard for that position. And I got loose.”
Busch asked for Logano to bring throttle data to their meeting with NASCAR officials. Logano hopes that data convinced Busch he didn’t act recklessly. Logano said he would “take it back in a heartbeat” if he could. Busch said after qualifying Friday that the data didn’t change his mind, that he felt Logano’s on-track move was in response to Busch wedging himself by Logano moments earlier. He called it “instantaneous retaliation.”
Las Vegas race winner Martin Truex Jr. said that Logano “drifted the whole lane off the bottom to hit the 18 [of Busch] — you could see he turned to the right, [got] sideways and just trying to hang on to it. The track was so slick and these cars, when you go on the inside of somebody, it’s so easy to get loose.
“He obviously just crossed the edge. If he had to do it again, I’m sure he wouldn’t have done it. He definitely crossed the line.”
Logano said he can only hope Busch sees his side. He has had a great relationship with Busch and it’s one he hopes eventually can return to one of mutual respect that has been built over nine years of racing, including several years battling for wins.
“Was it a big mistake? Not to start but it obviously had a big reaction after a small little wiggle. It’s hard racing the last lap. We’re racing to the checkered flag. I had no reason to do anything on purpose, that’s for sure, for fourth place or whatever — that would make no sense. For me, it was just really racing hard for that position. And I got loose.”
Joey Logano, on driving into Kyle Busch during the Cup race at Las Vegas
“We’re going to race the same as we always have,” Logano said. “We never had an issue.”
In talking after qualifying, Busch gave the old “you race guys how you want to be raced” and indicated he could race Logano differently. And that’s almost expected to be the case by the other drivers.
“They’ll race differently. As simple as that,” said Truex, who had a long-running rift with Jeff Gordon in which he tried to make Gordon’s life miserable after some Gordon mistakes resulted in Truex wrecks.
“Kyle is going to make it hard on Joey every chance he gets. Joey is probably going to give Kyle a little bit more here and there just to pay it back.”
Hidden by sunglasses when he met with the media, Busch already had called his move. After Las Vegas, he indicated Logano will get his due. Busch didn’t give any indication that five days removed and two discussions with Logano have changed his mind.
That doesn’t mean Busch will dump Logano a la Matt Kenseth a couple of years ago. But “everything is great” Busch is going to make Logano’s life not great at all while trying to remember what NASCAR said in its meeting with the drivers Friday.
“We’re very clear that we’re not going to allow a car to be used as a weapon,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said.
That gives Busch a lot of wiggle room. Can he do to Logano what he did to Dale Earnhardt Jr. nine years ago at Richmond? It appears so. He just can’t do what he did to Ron Hornaday in 2011, where he rammed into Hornaday under caution and then again to turn him into the wall — an action that resulted in NASCAR banning Busch from the remainder of the Texas weekend, including the Xfinity and Cup races.
In addition to how Busch will respond on the track, it remains unclear what Las Vegas meant as far as drivers and how they will handle their anger. NASCAR didn’t fine Busch for throwing the punch after the Las Vegas race.
O’Donnell said NASCAR didn’t open the door to drivers throwing haymakers after every race. When asked if NASCAR would crack down if fights escalate, he said the drivers know the expectations.
Maybe this is what NASCAR wants, to have fighting be a part of the game as it is in hockey. After all, new series sponsor Monster Energy is all about the unconventional and the brash.
“It’s just hard,” driver Kyle Larson said. “They used to penalize people for that stuff and now they don’t. I don’t think anybody knows where they stand on it.”
Larson likely was thinking about 2014, when Marcos Ambrose was fined for a postrace decking of Casey Mears in the garage. Later that year, NASCAR didn’t fine Kenseth for putting Keselowski in a headlock, and neither Keselowski nor Gordon was fined after their team brawl in 2014, where it wasn’t clear if either of the drivers threw punches.
“We look at each incident separately,” O’Donnell said when asked what was the difference between Ambrose in 2014 and Busch in 2017, the two instances that appeared the most similar. “We’re comfortable with the decision we made.”
The good thing for NASCAR is many of its competitors aren’t the fighting type. Logano said he owes it to team owner Roger Penske and his sponsors to act professionally. Several drivers don’t have a fighter’s build.
“Look at how big I am — I can’t do that,” said the 5-foot-6, 135-pound Larson. “Joey has probably got two feet longer reach on me. … I don’t think I’ve ever been mad enough I’ve ever wanted to punch anybody, probably because I’m scared that I’m going to be the one that gets beat up.”
The fight also did NASCAR a favor. Up until the fight, the most controversial portion of Las Vegas was a Kevin Harvick comment about the safety team not responding fast enough to his wreck.
NASCAR officials said they have talked with Harvick about their safety team response.
“We talked to Kevin and we’re working on some things,” O’Donnell said. “Kevin had some good ideas on how we can improve that and we’re going to look at that.”
Did NASCAR see something it needs to do better?
“You can always make improvements,” O’Donnell said.
So, in summary this week, while NASCAR met with the drivers to clear up any questions or issues, it didn’t do much to publicly make clear the things that clouded the Las Vegas rearview mirror.
NASCAR clearly wants more people to watch the sport — it needs more people to watch after a ratings tumble for the Las Vegas race. It probably wouldn’t mind another fight and more talk about drivers punching each other. As long as it doesn’t get out of hand.
Of course, when that point will come appears to be a moving target, much like the Logano bob-and-weave — his “ninja” moves he called them — that allowed him to avoid the Busch fist that came flying toward him.
The story of Logano-Busch most likely hasn’t reached its final chapter and NASCAR has created a mix of intrigue and confusion over the past five days.
So, enjoy Phoenix.
And as Kyle Busch said: “Everything is great.”