Racing's season of feuds heats up at Chicago

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Could there be more to come between these four drivers as the seasons progress?

NASCAR's newest feud involves three-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch, giving the stock car series some much-needed spark heading into an off-weekend before the AllState 400 at the Brickyard on July 26.

As Busch and Johnson were battling Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon for the lead late in the race, Johnson's Chevrolet drifted high and forced Busch's Dodge into a scrape against the Turn 4 wall. Busch then drove down and sideswiped Johnson to let him know he didn't appreciate the move. After the race, Busch fired a biting shot at Johnson, who is often criticized for being "too nice," both on and off the track.

"The No. 48, we got run into at Sonoma, we got run into again, starting to lose faith in his ability to be a three-time champion on the track," Busch said. "I'm disappointed. I gave him room and we got pounded into the fence. I had a left rear tire rub. Luckily we got a yellow, got her fixed and finished 17th, so a couple of runs spoiled by the No. 48 car. I'm not digging it.

"I guess it was just a late-race rumble there and we came out on the short end of the stick. I don't know what the problem is with Jimmie and me, but we're running into each other way too often it seems. I'm pretty livid right now, to tell you the truth."

Johnson, of course, saw the incident much differently.

"I think the No. 24 [Jeff Gordon] got inside of me and got me loose because he's on new tires and the two of us [myself and Kurt Busch] touched and he body slammed me after that," said Johnson, who was more upset with Denny Hamlin than with Busch. "That was the least of my problems, the bigger problem I had was when I was leading and the No. 11 [Hamlin] pushed me all the way through one and two and eventually I lost control and that's what put me back there.

"It was just hard racing. It was one of those days that I thought we had this thing won at one point and then the restart didn't work out so well for us. Everybody was out of control back in the race, body slamming. The No. 83 [Brian Vickers] and the No. 11 went at for a little bit. We were bump drafting down straightaways. That was some wild racing. I didn't think we could race like that on a mile and a half."

The increased incidents between Johnson and Busch may be a product of NASCAR's new double-file restart rule more than a personal grudge match. NASCAR instituted the side-by-side restart rule in June to add more excitement to its races. That puts drivers racing for position beside each other on restarts rather than lining up nose-to-tail in the running order.

Meanwhile, while Busch-Johnson may be NASCAR's newest feud, the one between IndyCar Series drivers Tracy and Castroneves has been going on since the end of the 2002 Indianapolis 500.

That's when Tracy passed Castroneves for the lead on the backstretch on lap 199, just as Buddy Lazier and Laurent Redon crashed behind them in the second turn. Tracy believed he was the winner of the Indy 500 that year but officials ruled the pass came after the call for the yellow flag. Tracy's team appealed and Indy Racing League CEO Tony George ruled it was a "judgment call" that could not be appealed, which left Castroneves the winner.

Castroneves upstaged Tracy again as Sunday's Honda Indy Toronto race was rapidly nearing completion. Tracy was set to blow by Castroneves for second place as the two cars ran side-by-side through Turn 4, but both crashed in the wall before Turn 5.

"We are like oil and water, that's for sure," Tracy said of his relationship with Castroneves. "We were racing hard and he didn't want to let me by. He had to save fuel and I didn't have to save fuel. I could see the speed differential at the end of the straight. I closed on him really rapidly. He didn't block -- he left me the room to get in there, I got in and then we hooked up wheel-to-wheel. I'm not saying he squeezed me and I didn't try to squeeze him. It was just one of those things."

Castroneves -- IndyCar's "Mr. Popularity" -- was loudly booed by the Toronto fans for the wreck that took out their national hero, Tracy. As Castroneves was walking back to the paddock after the crash, he had to pass Tracy's pit area. While some fans booed this year's Indy 500 winner, a young girl shouted, "That's OK, Helio -- we still love you."

Then, Tracy decided to come up and shake hands with his combatant. "I'm sorry -- we got hooked up and I couldn't get off of you and you couldn't get off of me," he told Castroneves.

Tracy may have had more reason to be upset with IndyCar Series president of competition Brian Barnhart than with Castroneves. Tracy believes he was ahead of eventual winner Dario Franchitti on a pit stop on lap 58. Tracy was on the race course while Franchitti was in the pits just as Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal crashed in Turn 3 to bring out a full-course yellow flag.

But Barnhart ruled that Franchitti was in front at the end of the "blend line" that runs across the track at pit exit.

"I'm baffled as to why we didn't end up the theoretical leader of the race, because I passed Dario on the track while he was in the pit lane and they reversed the position on pit lane," Tracy said. "I've never seen that happen before in all of my days in racing.

"But if felt good to be out here in front of the hometown and show what I can do. I would have loved to have finished on the podium, but in my opinion and in my heart I was able to show everybody what I can do again."

By scoring his fourth victory of the season in dominating fashion at Chicagoland Speedway, 50-yearp-old Mark Martin appears to have found NASCAR's fountain of youth.

Despite leading most of the race, Martin had to dig his way back to the front in a frantic late-race charge because of a flurry of cautions at the end of the contest.

In the process, he was able to give team owner Rick Hendrick an early birthday present. Hendrick turned 60 on Sunday.

"This guy's birthday is going to be in a few minutes, so [it's] a slightly early birthday present," Martin said. "They have worn him out with champagne and Gatorade and everything else. I kind of feel sorry for him. I know he's going to be sticky and stinking going home, but that's how it goes."

While NASCAR continues to be a young man's sport, Martin is proving that experience and desire are two key factors to success in stock car racing.

"Mark put on an unbelievable performance tonight," Hendrick said. "To see him get four wins this year is pretty phenomenal. He's just an awesome talent. He and Alan [Gustafson, crew chief] are a great combination. They just get better and better every week."

Martin continues to use failure as a key motivating tool in his resurgence. Martin reminds himself that he has to perform ever race in order to keep his job.

"I'm racing for my job," Martin said. "Rick, he tells me I got it, but I've also told him he's in the clear to set me down when the day comes that I'm not getting the job done.

"I feel the heat every day. I know the opportunity that I have driving Alan Gustafson's car and with this team. I feel good we're making the most of it."

Martin certainly is making the most of his opportunity with Hendrick Motorsports now that he is back as a full-time driver battling for a spot in the Chase. If it weren't for some early-season DNFs, Martin would be solid in the top 12.

By finishing last in Sunday's German Grand Prix, Sebastien Bourdais of France is probably out of a ride. That has led to speculation that the four-time Champ Car champion could be heading back to the United States to compete in the IndyCar Series.

Bourdais continues to enjoy a strong relationship with Newman Haas Lanigan Racing, which already includes 20-year-old Graham Rahal of the United States and Robert Doornbos of The Netherlands.

The problem with a Bourdais return could be sponsorship money -- something that has plagued teams in racing since the economic downturn last fall.

But it would be great to see Bourdais compete in the unified IndyCar Series because his four Champ Car titles came during the open-wheel split. And, it would add another name driver to an international field in IndyCar.

But sadly, Bourdais is another driver who achieved greatness in North America who wasn't able to succeed in Formula One. Over the past 20 years, only Canada's Jacques Villeneuve, who won the 1997 Formula One World Championship, and former CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya (a South American, by the way) were able to achieve a level of success in Formula One after competing in North American open-wheel racing.

After dropping off the face of the NASCAR earth for six weeks after he was removed as crew chief for cousin Dale Earnhardt, Jr.,Tony Eury, Jr. returned to the NASCAR garage area this past weekend as the crew chief for Brad Keselowski, who ran Saturday night's Sprint Cup race in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 25 Chevrolet.

In Eury's mind, Earnhardt is still family and the separation of the two in the sport will not cause any extra strain on the relationship.

"In no way shape or form am I going to let this sport get in between me and Dale [Earnhardt] Jr," Eury said. "It was a job, I enjoyed being around Dale Jr. -- still do. He's family and we go deeper than this racing deal.

"I've always wanted him to have the opportunity, if he has to be with somebody else, if that brings him up a scale then I've always been for that. I'm just looking forward to working with Brad. Me and Dale Jr. have plenty of hunts planned together and we're going to go do things outside of racing. To be honest with you, I don't think we really talk a whole lot of racing when we do talk. I think that's pretty cool."

Eury said he spent the past six weeks "just chilling" but was ready to get back to work with Keselowski.

He did admit, however, that the strain of working with his cousin and the pressures that come with it had taken a toll.

"In one shape and form it was like, 'Cool, I'm glad this is over with,' and the next one felt like I let my cousin down," Eury admitted. "I've done a lot for him, he's done a lot for me, but we enjoy racing together.

"I think a lot of people put him on a pedestal that he doesn't need to be on. They put a lot of pressure on him to be somebody that he's not going to be. Dale Jr. is a great race car driver, but I just think that he's got so much pressure on him that he doesn't enjoy it right now. Hopefully, that's what I told him, 'Man, you just need to start enjoying yourself more,' and that's kind of where I was at."

Eury even went so far as to blame the media for the downfall between himself and his cousin.

Wow, it's not like that has never happened before.

Damn media always causing trouble.

"I think, my personal opinion, is that you guys put so much pressure on him after Daytona that Dale Jr. just basically had had enough," Eury said. "If you want to get down to it. We went to Daytona and had a shot at winning that race, had some problems on pit road, but we ain't going to slam Dale Jr. We're going to pick him up and say, 'Let's go to Vegas,' and we went to California and blew up so there's two negative weeks.

"You guys were all over him and it just brought him down. I don't think we had a strong enough finish to bring him back up so every week the hole gets deeper and deeper and deeper and it was like throwing a squirrel into a hole -- it's not coming out. So I will dig the other way to get away from it.

"Basically, I think that in a nut shell, that's it. It's unfortunate. If I could go over there right now and turn that team around, I would. We've tried our teammate's set-ups, we've tried our own set-ups, we've tried everything that we can imagine and when things are going our way then something happens. At the end of the day you still have the same result. We just have to get Dale Jr. having more fun right now and I think that's the biggest thing."

Here's a novel idea: rather than having Dale Jr. focusing on fun, maybe he should focus on his job as a race car driver. Last I checked, he's behind teenager Joey Logano in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings.

"Good for him. If he wanted to go and he thinks he has got more stability at Waltrip's good for him. It doesn't really... Ourselves as a team, we have got to look for the good things and the bad things. I think he has too many questions and tough luck. Hopefully he runs better there than he is here. For us it is more right now my focus is not who is going to be my teammate or whatever. My focus is making the Chase and making sure this team runs good." -- Juan Pablo Montoya on teammate Martin Truex Jr's decision to leave Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing for Michael Waltrip Racing next season.

"It depends on your definition of 'staggering achievement,' but, yes, it would be a great achievement. We have to remember that Gene Haas did a great job laying the ground work and laying the foundation in more ways than one for what we have right now. Tony Stewart and his group have done a great job of moving in different people as we have stated before, people are making the difference. In general, it would be a staggering accomplishment for either of us. Just to be in the Chase, part of goal was for both cars to be in the Chase. If we can make that happen, it's a staggering accomplishment in itself in my opinion." -- Ryan Newman when asked if it would be a "staggering achievement" if Tony Stewart or himself wins this year's Sprint Cup title.

"I think NASCAR can take a step in looking at it and if the second-place driver dumps -- quote un quote -- the leader, than black flag him. He doesn't get the win. If he's on him from behind and moves him out of the way and there's no wreck, than fine he can win the race. But, if you're up alongside a guy and you dump him, than I say black flag him and give the win to the third-place guy." -- Kyle Busch's take on the last-lap incident at Daytona on July 4.

"No. I'm not biting on your lure and you haven't been around here as long as most of these guys and they know I'm not biting on it so I am damn sure not going to bite on yours. Sorry." -- Tony Stewart when asked if the black flag should have been displayed at the end of the race at Daytona. Stewart won that race, by the way, when he fended off a second block attempt by Kyle Busch that triggered a massive crash at the checkered flag.

Both NASCAR and IndyCar have the week off so that means it's a chance to enjoy what regular people get to do in the summertime. Translation: don't bother me until next week.