How Long Can NASCAR’s “Odd Couple” Co-Exist?

18 AND 5 AT bRISTOL

Concerning team conflict, the legendary NFL coach-turned-commentator John Madden once said, “Winning is a great deodorant.” He explained that those things that might bother you about your team aren’t such a big deal when you’re winning; it’s losing that “brings the stink out.”

I always think of this story when I think of Kyle Busch, and a lot of other NASCAR drivers for that matter. New Kyle Busch? You remember that talk when Busch started behaving himself a few seasons back? Yeah, he was being a nice guy; hello, he was winning! Fast forward to Sunday at the Pocono 400, Kyle is falling like a rock. His frustrations find him profanely lashing out at his car, his crew chief and projecting a defeatist attitude. Eventually, crew chief Dave Rogers informs Rowdy that team owner Joe Gibbs is standing over his shoulder and he wants the two to cool it, and clean up the language. Busch replied he would be a lot happier if he had a faster car.

As a Super Bowl winning coach with the Washington Redskins, Gibbs demonstrated the patience of Job, dealing with a cast of colorful characters that included the likes of John Riggins, Joe Theismann and Dexter Manley. With JGR, the man as well known for his outspoken Christian faith has not shrunk away from bringing into the fold such tempestuous types as Tony Stewart and Busch- not to mention other high-maintenance types as Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. Busch’s behavior is nothing new; this is the same guy who flipped off a race official while being held up on pit road, has wrecked more than one competitor in anger, and said nasty things to his crew when things didn’t go well.

To be sure, Busch isn’t the only one. Even Gibbs’ most even-keeled personality, Matt Kenseth, has been known to pout and explode a time or two. Racers are intense guys, and heck, sometimes Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s and Clint Bowyer’s radio exchanges have been downright comical at times. It’s the nature of the beast in an intensely competitive atmosphere; one fraught with danger and split-second decisions with millions of dollars and racing glory on the line. Those are conditions that can bring out the best and the worst in a competitor. With that said, there are lines that can be crossed, and just because “everyone does it” doesn’t make it right. At the very least, taking some personal responsibility when one has crossed that line to say “I was behaving like a jerk. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” As hotheaded as he can be, Tony Stewart hasn’t been too big to say “my bad.”

You have to wonder how long this attraction of opposites will last. Busch can always wake up one day, decide the more than occasional equipment failures are too much, and that maybe driver and team aren’t a good fit.

Conversely, the owner can look at the conflict that has torn at the relationships within the organization, those phone calls to smooth over offended sponsors, and say “enough is enough.” In the case of Gibbs and Busch, there’s little doubt he has already come close once. No doubt adding to the temptation is a dandy crop of hungry free agents (Carl Edwards being the lead candidate of the moment) to either expand the team or fill a seat. To be sure, Busch has loads of talent, but so do many others; others who may be a lot easier to work with. For all the talk about how he wins, let’s not forget that Busch has finished no higher than fourth in any given season. With all due respect, this isn’t Jimmie Johnson we’re talking about here.

As long as Busch is winning, NASCAR’s odd couple can co-exist, as it helps the good balance out the bad. By the same token, the joining of extremes can become less than aromatically pleasing. If Busch shows well in Michigan, it will serve to take the edge off matters as they stand now. If this is part of a prolonged slump where the driver’s attitude becomes worsened, this marriage may well be bound for divorce court.