By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Jimmie Johnson’s run-in with Kurt Busch at Pocono, followed by his and Busch’s comments on the subject the next week at Watkins Glen, are signs that Johnson is a different person than he was in his early days in NASCAR. And the budding feud also could mean that this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup could be reminiscent of one of the sport’s classic championship battles where two drivers who didn’t particularly like each other went head-to-head each week in the run for the championship.
For Johnson, the fact that he confronted Busch on pit road at Pocono after the two banged doors on the track, combined with the way he didn’t shy away from the subject in his media appearances at Watkins Glen, show that he’s come a long way from being the “vanilla” person he was perceived to be for much of his career.
The vanilla reputation has always been a sore spot for Johnson, but it wasn’t entirely untrue. He’s often acknowledged that he initially had to maintain his squeaky-clean all-American image because that was one of the tools he used to attract the backing needed to advance his career in motorsports. His family was far from wealthy, and his way of always saying and doing the right things allowed him to get and keep the backing he needed to advance from off-road racing to NASCAR.
But even as he tried to shed the vanilla image, it continued to dog him. Just last fall, there was debate over whether his uncontroversial image was the reason many fans had tuned out NASCAR telecasts.
Johnson strongly disagreed.
“Well, I know that I’m not the reason for those things, and I sure as [expletive] know I’m not vanilla,” he said at the time. “It’s unfortunate that it still lingers around because I think I’ve done plenty to show that I’m far from vanilla.”
He said last week that his reaction to Busch isn’t the sign that there’s a “new” Jimmie Johnson.
“No, that is not the case,” he said. But he didn’t deny that he’s long had an ax to grind with Busch.
“We know there has been plenty of history over the years,” he said. “And there are just things that just kind of boil to a head, and when I hopped out of the car and started talking to him he had one level of interaction with me while he was sitting in his race car. And when he got out of the car, neither one of us were happy, but we were talking. And the crowd started to build and his bravery started to build. I walk away … and he got awfully tough.”
Johnson said [Busch’s] big talk in front of a crowd is what had him steamed the most.
“That really makes me mad,” Johnson said. “Bottom line: he just started running his mouth. If you look at, over the years, what his mouth has done for him, it got my biggest fan Jimmy Spencer to punch him in the face. It’s led to issues with NASCAR officials on pit road. I think we all tune in weekly and wonder, ‘What’s he going to say to his crew guys?’
“At the end of the day, I’m not going to let him run his mouth at me. That is just kind of how it is.”
Busch also had plenty to say about the incident, and his comments brought to mind the mind games that drivers like Darrell Waltrip and the late Dale Earnhardt used to use to “rattle the cage” of an opponent.
Asked to respond to Johnson’s comments about him, Busch replied: “It’s great. It means that I’m in his head, and if I’m in his head he’s got to worry about us running through this Chase.”
Busch also said he’d like nothing better than to square off with Johnson for the title. “I’d love to see that atmosphere,” he said. “If we can perform well enough in the Chase and be in position to race Jimmie Johnson for the championship head-to-head, that would be wonderful.”
But he acknowledged that with the Chase format, that’s not likely. “It’s not really possible because you can’t just focus on one guy,” Busch said. “There’s going to be 12 guys that make this Chase, and every one of them has a shot at the championship.”
Busch did hint that there will be one guy that Johnson needs to keep an eye out for. “When you have a history with a guy, you just don’t forget about it,” Busch said. “I learned from one of the greats about how to keep a memory of who does you right or who does you wrong, and that was Jimmy Spencer. He taught me a lot.”
Johnson said he knows a feud with Busch isn’t what he needs as he tries to dominate the Chase and win a record sixth straight Cup championship. “You don’t want enemies, issues, or anything lingering but you just don’t have that luxury at times,” he said, adding that the worst-case scenario is when the bad blood escalates to wrecking on the race track.
“As soon as that driver … if he is a Chase driver or even if he is not, he holds all the power and all the cards,” Johnson said. “At some point … he can just dump you.”