If you’re one of the people looking for a rivalry to spice up the Cup Series, you’re walking around your house looking for your car keys while they’re in your left hand.
Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski added another chapter to their longstanding rivalry during Saturday’s Xfinity Series race when Busch went into the wall off Keselowski’s bumper just seconds after the race began.
As Busch started first, he darted ahead of Keselowski and the rest of the field. But as Keselowski peeked to the high side around Busch as the two cars prepared to enter turn 1, Busch moved up to blunt Keselowski’s momentum. But he did so fractionally late. As Busch slid up the track, he made contact with Keselowski and his car turned into the wall.
It was an incident that was simply one of them racin’ deals. There was nothing dirty or premeditated about what happened. Busch was defending his position and did so ever-so-slightly late because Keselowski didn’t lift.
But the actions of both drivers is a big reason why the rivalry is so great. Neither driver gives the other an inch. And nor they should. Busch and Keselowski are two of the hardest racers in NASCAR and their combined intensity leads to moments like we saw Saturday.
As NASCAR tries and tries to push drivers like Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and others in the wake of the retirements of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and (soon) Dale Earnhardt Jr., the competition between Busch and Keselowski has been overlooked. The sanctioning body is trying really hard to look at the future that it’s becoming a bit blind to the present.
But Busch and Keselowski are a big part of NASCAR’s near and distant future too. The two Cup champions are both in their early 30s and likely have 10 years and multiple championships remaining in their careers.
With no other active Cup champions younger than 39 at the end of the 2017 season, they are the only two drivers with current Hall of Fame credentials who can also be considered an integral part of NASCAR’s attempted rebound.
That’s a huge selling point for a sport that was bolstered by the conflict at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500 and the rise of Jeff Gordon in the 1990s as Dale Earnhardt dominated the series. The clash of styles between the two drivers who developed a mutual respect for each other came at the perfect time for the sport. If NASCAR thrives when personalities collide, what better personalities than Busch and Keselowski?
Keselowski summed up the appeal of competition between himself and Busch perfectly during Fox’s pre-race telecast Sunday.
“I understand it gives everyone something to talk about,” Keselowski said. “I enjoy being a part of the sport. I enjoy watching the rivalries, not necessarily being a part of them. When you’ve got two guys that are in great teams, great cars and are capable of running up front, things are going to happen and sometimes things aren’t going to settle so well.”
While Busch is winless in 2017, he’s third in the points standings and three spots ahead of Keselowski, who has two wins and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs. One of those wins came at the expense of Busch at Martinsville, where Keselowski ran Busch down after the race’s final restart and passed him for the lead.
Busch will undoubtedly join Keselowski in the 16-driver playoff field, either with a win or via his points position. And they should be two of the biggest favorites to make the four-driver field that races for the title at Homestead.
Busch and Keselowski have really only raced each other for a title in the Cup Series once. When Keselowski won the championship in 2012, Busch missed the Chase. When Busch won in 2015, Keselowski made it to the third round, but missed the final round thanks to a wreck in the first race of the third round at Martinsville.
Heck, a scenario with Busch, Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and another driver (Earnhardt Jr., if we’re dreaming) is probably the best scenario for the appeal of NASCAR’s first championship in its stage racing era.
Johnson would be going for his record-breaking eighth series championship while Keselowski and Busch would each be looking to add a second and one-up each other along the way. It’s a tantalizing prospect that has both multiple mainstream and racing-specific storylines.
And would give us another opportunity to see how the racing relationship between the drivers of the No. 2 and No. 18 develops.
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