WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Jimmie Johnson is about as mild-mannered as a racer can be, but he wasn’t about to take any lip from Kurt Busch.
The two drivers had a confrontation at last week’s NASCAR Cup at Pocono after slamming into each other on the final lap. Johnson accused Busch of trying to run him down, while Busch contended Johnson made the first move. Busch finished third, one spot ahead of Johnson.
Johnson said at a news conference at Watkins Glen International on Friday that he was angered by Busch’s remarks after their argument in the pits.
“When he got out of the car, we’re talking, and the crowd started to build and his bravery started to build,” Johnson said. “I walk away and he keeps talking. That’s the part that frustrates me. That’s when you saw me engage like that. If you’re going to say something, say it to a man’s face.
“I don’t know about you, but that really makes me mad. He just started running his mouth.”
Johnson said there were two parts to the altercation — what happened on the track and then on pit road.
“We come off turn one and Kurt gets to me side drafting,” Johnson said. “I tried to break the side draft, and from there he felt it was necessary to run into the side of my car and tear my car up. I was mad at that point. I never touched him.”
It wasn’t the first dustup between the five-time Cup champion and Busch.
Ever since Busch chanted “anyone but the 48” after Johnson drove his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy past Busch to win at Bristol last season, the two have had issues.
When Busch bumped Johnson out of the way to take the lead in the closing laps at New Hampshire in June a year ago, Johnson caught Busch, put a little bump on his Penske Racing Dodge and slipped his No. 48 underneath with two laps to go and won.
“I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, I can knock the 48 out of the way because he’s not going to wreck me,”’ Johnson said after the race.
Then at Pocono it got worse when Johnson caused a stunning late-race crash that collected Elliott Sadler, Clint Bowyer and Busch. Replays showed the 48 appearing to hit Busch from behind. Busch’s car swerved in front of Bowyer’s Chevy before slipping sideways into the infield grass and smashing into the infield barrier.
Busch walked away, the race was halted for 20-plus minutes while workers cleaned up extensive debris and welded the barrier back together. After getting checked out by medics, Busch pointed blame straight at No. 48.
“I wrecked on the straightaway. Jimmie Johnson drove straight through us,” he said.
Johnson called Busch the next day to talk, and the two said they’d put their problems in the rearview mirror.
The latest still simmers.
“There’s no secret about it that there’s no love lost between the two of us,” Johnson said. “We can deal with it. We have done it. We didn’t have wrecked race cars at the end of Pocono. I could have easily gone down into the Tunnel Turn and done something stupid. The stuff on the track, yeah, it makes me mad.
“When you look over the years and what his mouth has done for him — he got my biggest fan (former Cup driver) Jimmy Spencer to punch him,” Johnson said. “It’s led to issues with the NASCAR officials on pit road. I think we all tune in weekly and wonder, ‘What’s he going to say to his crew guys?’
“Look at what he said about Roger Penske, his car owner. That aspect is the part that really got me mad. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let him run his mouth.”
Busch has a bad habit of doing that, even though he’s worked hard to improve his image since he won the Cup title in 2004. That’s when he beat Johnson by just eight points in the closest championship in series history.
During the night race at Richmond in late April, Busch, angry because his car wasn’t competitive, yelled at his crew during the early portion of the race and blamed Penske Racing’s shortcomings on technical director Tom German over a radio frequency available to the public.
Busch has since rebounded and sits a solid fourth in the Cup standings, two spots behind Johnson, as the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship looms in five races.
“Issues that develop through the course of the year, some last longer,” Johnson said. “You’ve just got to take it as it is. The way that things are handled on the track sets the tone. If it turns into wrecking cars, man, that’s the worst situation you can have going into the Chase.”
Busch will hold his press conference on Saturday, and he’ll likely will be asked about the situation with Johnson.
At least one driver likes the prospect of an ongoing feud.
“If it carries over for those guys all throughout the last 15 races of the year, it wouldn’t bother me a bit,” said younger brother Kyle Busch, who is third in the standings. “But I certainly wouldn’t want any part of it.
“It’s something that they’ve kind of had going on for the past few years, I guess. Whatever it is, it’s not my beef, not my problem.”
NOTEBOOK: Plagued by a string of blown engines, Joe Gibbs Racing is merging its engine program with Toyota Racing Development. JGR President J.D. Gibbs said in a conference call Thursday that TRD had already helped in several areas but acknowledged there were areas where “we’re struggling.” “We’re kind of a the point now where I think we can combine a lot of the best attributes that JGR has, the best attributes TRD has, and really have a better package going forward,” Gibbs said. Gibbs said the alliance probably won’t help much this year and is more focused on 2012 and beyond. “This is still a work in progress,” said Lee White, president and general manager of TRD. JGR, which has had 11 engine failures in practices and races this year, has built its own engines out of its shop in Huntersville, N.C., since joining NASCAR’s top series in 1993. All three JGR Sprint Cup teams have had engine problems that began with the season-opening Daytona 500. Denny Hamlin missed a shift that blew the first engine of the year. But Joey Logano’s engine failed at Phoenix, Kyle Busch’s blew at Las Vegas, Logano ran most of Bristol short on power, and Hamlin’s engine failed 105 laps into the spring race at California.
Gibbs says he’s hopeful that switching most of the engine work to TRD’s Costa Mesa, Calif., facility will help the team achieve greater durability under the hood. TRD already supplies engines for Michael Waltrip Racing. JGR also said it was looking to add engine customers from NASCAR’s Nationwide and Trucks series and was optimistic the company would not lose anyone in its engine shop. TRD also is staring at a reduced workload. It has built engines for Red Bull, which announced in June that it will leave NASCAR at the end of the season. The Sprint Cup and Nationwide series head to the road course at Watkins Glen on Friday.