By HANK KURZ Jr.
The Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. — Kyle Busch is on a hot streak, the winner of the last two races in NASCAR’s top series and the series points leader as he arrives at Richmond Raceway, where his four career victories are tops among active drivers.
But it’s a race Busch didn’t win here that drew a lot of attention this week.
It was 10 years ago on the 0.75-mile oval that Busch cemented his reputation as NASCAR’s new villian.
Dueling with fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. late in the spring Cup Series race, and with Earnhardt looking to end a two-year racing winless streak, Busch and Earnhardt made contact in Turn Three, crashing both cars.
As Clint Bowyer sailed by for the victory, Busch became public enemy No. 1 among NASCAR fans. He and his wife, Samantha, had to dodge rocks and bottles and other debris thrown by angry fans as they left the track, and track and law enforcement officials tucked them inside a trailer for safety until a helicopter arrived to take them away.
For the rest of the season, Busch said, he received death threats and had constant protection.
The incident, Busch said Friday, was “kind of the blowup moment” in the young stars’ relationship.
He and Earnhardt, who had had several dustups as well in the 2007 season, became the fiercest of rivals afterward, and it grew to an intense dislike that lingered for several seasons until late in Earnhardt’s career.
“We’ve been friends, acquaintances, friendly or competitors with one another over the course of the last three, four, five years. I guess it was probably 2012, 2013 when we started to talk a little bit more and kind of get over our difference some,” Busch said, adding that the retired Earnhardt had a lot to doing with making it possible.
The two, for what they said was the very first time, talked about their relationship, the incident and other incidents that marked their rivalry for the first time on Earnhardt’s weekly podcast on Tuesday morning.
It’s a moment that both fan bases have used to fuel their allegiances ever since.
A decade later, “I hear about it all the time,” Busch said on the broadcast.
The more than hour-long discussion was, he added before qualifying for tonight’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway, “an opportunity for us to just put it all to bed and be done with it and maybe some of our fans, mine and his, could kind of put it to bed and be done with it and move on and live the rest of our lives in peace, I guess.”
It’s a peace both drivers have finally come to appreciate, too.
Beyond the on-track issues, there was the matter of Earnhardt leaving his ride at Dale Earnhardt Enterprises after the 2007 season to take a job with Hendrick Motorsports, which in turn terminated Busch’s contract.
Earnhardt contends he thought they would be teammates, but Busch thought otherwise.
Busch said on the podcast he was bitter over being released by Hendrick. Initially he was primarily angry with Earnhardt and his team, but as time went on, he became angry with the entire organization. “It just became like, ‘You all made this decision. Now you’re going to feel the wrath of this decision,’” Busch recalled.
Busch, who’d moved to Joe Gibbs Racing, won eight races in his first post-Hendrick season.
But his return to Richmond in the fall stoked the fire of the rivalry further.
Busch won the pole, but Earnhardt, whose fans were imploring him to exact his revenge, wrecked him, relegating him to 15th place.
“I felt like if I didn’t wreck you at some point, my fans were going to be really [angry],” Earnhardt told Busch on the broadcast, admitting it was premeditated. “I had been contemplating it, dreaming about it.”
Now, all is well, Busch said, because they finally cleared the air.
“I don’t think many drivers have ever done that — not done it publicly like that in that fashion,” he said. “It was way, way, way, way, way long overdue and maybe the ‘08 incident maybe never would have happened … if some situations kind of were done a little bit differently between he and I back before that situation.”