NASCAR rivals? Maybe, maybe not


Saturday, Mar. 28, 2009

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Racing rivalries are a tricky business. When your job is to beat 42 other drivers, the idea of fixating on just one enemy can turn into a trap.

At the same time, it is fun when two drivers' paths cross in a way that comparisons become both relevant and inescapable.

Such is the case with Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

When Earnhardt was hired by Hendrick Motorsports, he essentially took Busch's spot on that team's roster, precipitating Busch's move to Joe Gibbs Racing.

Since the change at the beginning of the 2008 season, Busch has won 10 Sprint Cup races to just one for Earnhardt. Busch also is well out front in almost any objective measure of performance that compares the two.

After last week's win at Bristol, Busch fired an ear-perking shot across the Earnhardt bow, saying he's not worried about popularity, which has been Earnhardt's domain.

"I go out there to win races, to be No. 1 on the race track," Busch said. "That's where I feel like I win.

"For me, I don't think I would enjoy having the most fans out there. ...I think that there's probably too much pressure on one guy's shoulders who doesn't seem to win very often."

That sets the stage for Sunday's Goody's 500 at Martinsville after a week in which Earnhardt's team drew a vote of confidence from owner Rick Hendrick but spent several hours meeting to address a slow start that has the No. 88 Chevrolet 19th in the standings.

"When you need to do sit down and get all the collective experience you can around you and try to feed off of it," Earnhardt said. "...We're just working hard to get better and we don't sit on our tails hoping it'll turn around on its own because it probably wouldn't happen that way."

Earnhardt said the team talked about better communication and said he's trying to eat better and work out more to bolster his physical preparedness. But what everyone really wanted to know was what Earnhardt thought about what Busch said.

"He has every right to brag as much as he wants, I guess," Earnhardt said. "I wouldn't trade positions with him, though. I like where I'm at and I like my owner and I like my position and I like my opportunity. But right now, he has every right to say what he wants, and he's been able to back it up on the race track."

Earnhardt said he thinks Busch is "a good guy."

For the most part, Earnhardt and Busch have traveled the high road this weekend.

"I think Kyle has a heart down in there somewhere," Earnhardt said. "He just...has a funny way of wording things sometimes. But I know that he would have to understand what we're going through. ...He has to understand a little bit about the pressure. ...And so I think, deep down, he's probably not as crude about it as he might sound."

Busch tried to deflect the focus from the mano-a-mano aspect of the whole matter.

"Listen, he's got a lot of weight on his shoulders, but he's out there doing his best that he can do also," Busch said of Earnhardt. "...We have to look at everybody's situation as different, and how ours has come together a little bit better than theirs for some reason.

"I'm proud of the fact that I'm outperforming a guy that replaced me at Hendrick, but that's not what this sport is all about. This sport is to be the most consistent and to keep learning and to keep getting better and, ultimately, to try to win championships."

With seven championships between them, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon both know what it's like to be the one everybody's chasing.

"If you just worry about one person all the time you're going to short yourself," Johnson said. "I've worked really hard to focus as much as I can on our team and doing our best job. ...I try to race myself and race a given track, and I have more success doing that and not getting emotional and chasing somebody who's on a hot streak and getting caught up in that.

"But it still does happen. As hard as I try, I still get caught up in it."

Gordon believes it's better to let the other guy worry about you.

"The mind-game thing is just not me," said Gordon, the current points leader who starts first Sunday after qualifying was rained out Friday.

"That car and our team and our performance speak for itself. If that happens to distract guys because they look at the times and look at how good we are, then great. If we go out there and we win races and we're leading the points and that distracts them, that's great.

"But that's certainly not our goal or intention. Because of that, we don't do it on the flip side.

"Certainly, we pay attention to who's fast and what we're capable of doing and who we're trying to beat each and every weekend, but very rarely is it one guy."