AVONDALE, Ariz. — Clown. Two-faced. Head up his rear end.
These days? No name calling here. Just nothing but mutual respect.
Arguably NASCAR‘s two most talented drivers over the course of their decade and a half of racing against each other, Busch and Harvick have somehow gone from Harvick‘s arm extended through Busch‘s driver-side window — you know, for punching purposes — at Darlington in 2011, to being wrapped around Busch‘s shoulder in the garage area, sharing a laugh just last year.
At some point, Harvick says, that animosity toward each other turned to true appreciation for each other‘s talents and skill on the race track.
“As rough as our relationship was to start things off, there‘s a mutual respect that we have found over the past several years that have created a healthy competitiveness instead of an unhealthy competitiveness,” Harvick told NASCAR.com Friday at ISM Raceway, site of Sunday‘s TicketGuardian 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“Look, Kyle‘s a great race car driver. Kyle and I have really not much in common off the race track, but I have an extreme amount of respect for what he does in the race car and the things that happen on the race track. There isn‘t a guy in the garage that I want to beat more than Kyle just because of the fact that if you‘ve beat him on the race track, you‘ve had a really good day. Racing with him head-to-head is something that I enjoy. Definitely, he wants to beat me, I want to beat him, but I feel like I have a good relationship with Kyle.”
Even last year, the two raced hard for the win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, culminating in Harvick bumping Busch out of the way in the closing laps en route to the win.
Surely, Busch would be furious after the race, having his shot at holding a giant lobster in Victory Lane clawed away from him by his fiercest rival, right?
“That‘s fine; (if) that‘s how (he) wants to race, that‘s how I‘ll race back,” Busch said at the time — an extremely measured response given their history.
Perhaps it can be attributed to the fact that they‘ve each matured, become dads and champions, all in the last six years. Regardless, it‘s fascinating to see two of the sport‘s top competitors — probably each other‘s biggest competitor — go from spewing vitriol at each other in post-race interviews to sparking a healthy relationship solely based on mutual respect on the race track.
“There was certainly a time where Harvick and I both would agree that if neither of us showed up at the race track anymore that we would totally be OK with that,” Busch said Friday. “Now it‘s kind of resurfaced a little bit differently where I feel as though we feel like when we get to the race track we know we would much rather be able to beat each other and we‘ve done it way more respectfully over the course of the last … I don‘t know, 2014, since then. I don‘t know if that was just his move to SHR and the relationship that I had with Tony (Stewart) and Tony kind of telling Kevin, ‘Hey, give him some slack,‘ or whatever, but it‘s definitely come more from his side than my side as far as the friendliness I guess you could say.
“It‘s nice to be able to have that relationship with guys in the garage area. You don‘t have to be friends with them, but you do have to know that you have to respect them and you do have to know that you have to have an opportunity to go out there and race door handle to door handle or bumper to bumper and know that you‘re not going to get wrecked. Kevin and I have that going right now and hopefully we can keep that going that way and there are some others out there that could certainly learn a few things.”
As fate would have it, given their dominance and success at Phoenix — they combined to sweep the track last year — Busch and Harvick enter the weekend with the best odds to win Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at an identical 7-2 apiece.
It wouldn’t be surprising for the checkered flag to fall with either the No. 4 of Harvick or No. 18 of Busch leading the way, but don’t expect any fireworks in the desert between them if the racing is hard down to the wire — perhaps just a respectful tip of the helmet and an, “I’ll get you next week.”