By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing
CONCORD, N.C. -- Three security guards followed Kyle Busch around Lowe's Motor Speedway, where his safety was presumably still in danger from a victory-starved "Junior Nation" incensed over the late-race accident that cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. a victory.
Grow up, folks.
What happened with three laps to go Saturday night in Richmond was nothing more than hard racing, and persecuting Busch for it is hypocrisy at its worst. Sure, it's been two long years since Earnhardt last visited Victory Lane, and the checkered flag was certainly in sight as he and Busch jostled for position in their determined bid to claim it.
But as they battled for the lead on old tires in the waning laps of a slug-it-out short track race, Busch went a tad too high and creeped into Earnhardt's space as they entered the third turn. It sucked the air from the back of Busch's car, causing his rear to wiggle. In his effort to save it, he made contact with Earnhardt, who was drifting into Busch's line anyway.
The touch -- which was so clearly a racing accident and anything but intentional -- caused Earnhardt to spin up the track and back into the wall, stretching his losing streak to an agonizing 72 straight races. He was devastated and his fans were enraged, prompting Richmond security to escort Busch out of the track for his own protection.
Where was the outcry, though, when Earnhardt dumped Busch last October in Kansas?
That accident in the early laps of the third Chase race effectively ended Busch's title hopes, dropping him from 10 points out of the championship lead to sixth in the standings, 136 out.
But there was no backlash against Junior, who ran all over the back of Busch that day in an accident far easier to assign blame than Saturday night's little love tap. Earnhardt didn't need an escort out of the track, wasn't subjected to dangerous threats on message boards and most certainly wasn't held to the same scrutiny Busch is currently under.
And he escaped widespread blame again in the season finale, when Earnhardt drove through the grass entering pit road and cut off Busch in his frantic dart back onto the surface. The damage to Busch's front-end ensured he wouldn't finish third in the final season standings -- denying Hendrick Motorsports the 1-2-3 points sweep it had been seeking -- and caused him to close his Hendrick career with a disappointing 20th-place run.
Granted, being NASCAR's most popular driver affords Earnhardt an ardent fan base convinced its driver never does anything wrong. So it's rather easy to bash Busch and blame him for robbing Junior of what could have been an easy victory if Busch had dutifully lifted off the gas and conceded the win to the crowd favorite.
But that's not how racing works, and most certainly not what Joe Gibbs Racing is paying Busch to do this year.
Given a day to think about it, Earnhardt arrived Monday at Lowe's two-day test session reluctant to dissect the Richmond incident any more. He admitted the circumstances have been reversed before, and casting blame on Busch wasn't the right thing to do.
"I took him out at Kansas last year during the Chase. That's really why I wouldn't be any more vocal or angry about it, because I would just be hypocritical in that sense," Earnhardt said. "We both kind of been on each side of it now."
Regardless, track promoter Humpy Wheeler couldn't resist fanning the flames Monday by sending his trio of unarmed guards into the track to "protect" Busch, who found the whole thing rather comical. It was an accident, one he's apologized for, and he's reached out to Earnhardt to privately discuss what each driver could have done differently.
"There's not been any death threats, that would be ludicrous," Busch said. "Maybe they're out there, but I haven't seen them. I hope that my well-being is safe in this deal and since Junior ended up OK. Hopefully I can end up OK."
The irony of the whole situation is that Earnhardt's anger was never even really directed at Busch. His problem lies more with Denny Hamlin, who intentionally brought out a caution that set the circumstances for Earnhardt to wreck.
Hamlin was going to win Saturday night's race until a slow leak in his right front tire allowed Earnhardt and Busch to pass him with 18 laps to go. As the tire continued to deflate, a frustrated Hamlin struggled to find a clear lane to head into the pits.
So he simply stopped his car on the track and waited for NASCAR to call the caution. The yellow came out, Hamlin was penalized two laps for his intentional maneuver, and the stage was set for Earnhardt and Busch to race for the win.
Earnhardt viewed Hamlin's deliberate act as unprofessional, and recognized the role it played in him losing the race.
"Everybody knows the deal on that one. Everybody knows that's wrong," he snapped at reporters Saturday night after finishing 15th. "Y'all know what to write. I ain't writing it for you."
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon also questioned the move, speculating Hamlin likely snapped after leading a record 381 of the first 382 laps, only to see his certain win vanish by a cut tire.
"It looked very obvious to me that he was overly frustrated," Gordon said. "He was pretty much going to win the race and I think he was extremely upset and frustrated and didn't do what most people would do -- which is come to pit road long before the tire blows."
But there are no beer cans being hurled at Hamlin. No need for security, either.
That's all being saved for Busch, who had the nerve to chase Earnhardt for a win.
Shame on him.