WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.—Kyle Busch usually has the speed and the talent to run away from his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rivals.
That wasn’t the case on Sunday at Watkins Glen. He spun on Lap 2. His emotions got the best of him. And for the first time in his last five starts on the 2.45-mile road course, he didn’t lead a lap. Nor was Busch a contender.
Although Busch salvaged an 11th-place finish in what was otherwise a spotty performance—and actually regained the points lead after Joey Logano finished 23rd—he ignited the ire of his fellow drivers along the way.
While Chase Elliott gained momentum heading into the final four races of the regular season, and Busch’s own teammates, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin padded their points, the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Toyota placed himself directly in the crosshairs of William Byron and Bubba Wallace, two young drivers who weren't about to back down.
Busch used Byron up battling for fourth-place in Stage 1. After running into the No. 24 Chevy, crew chief Chad Knaus directed Byron to retaliate.
“If I see the 18 come back around here without you knocking the (expletive) out of him, we’re going to have a problem,” Knaus told his young driver.
Byron attempted to exact revenge on Busch, but the driver of the No. 18 Toyota brake-checked the No. 24 Chevy, causing further damage to Byron's car. Byron finished fifth in the first stage but ended up 21st in the Go Bowling at The Glen—his worst result in the last six races.
Over the last two months, Byron has been able to maintain his 12th-place position in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup standings. With four races remaining in the regular season, he appears to be securely above the cut line with a 60-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman, who are tied for 16th.
Clearly, Knaus isn’t going to stand for Byron becoming a shrinking violet. Team owner Rick Hendrick echoed those sentiments.
“I think you have to stand your ground in this sport,” Hendrick said. “If you let people push you around, they're going to push you around. He's running up front, so I think this was his eighth front‑row start, and he's learning.
“If people don't cut him any slack because he's a rookie, then he needs to let them know he'll come back.”
In hindsight, Hendrick believes it would have been more productive for Byron to stay the course and gain points. But if the 21-year-old driver allows himself to be a punching bag for Busch—or any of his fellow competitors—the trend will continue until Byron stands up for himself.
Wallace did just that. Unlike Byron, who is battling to qualify for his first Playoff berth, Wallace is 27th in the standings. He had nothing to lose. The 25-year-old didn’t grow up with a silver-spoon childhood. From 2013 to 2017, Wallace was fighting to survive in NASCAR. He isn’t afraid or apprehensive when it comes to standing his ground.
So after starting the race from 30th and working his way to 18th, Wallace didn’t take kindly to Busch dumping him just short of the second stage. Refusing to be bullied, Wallace elected to settle the score.
“He just run me the (expletive) over,” said Wallace, who finished 28th. “That’s exactly what happened. Two years in, or rookie stripe or what, I’m going to get my respect on the track, and I don’t care who does it. Some guys fail to think about the young guys, I guess, or with me.
“So I won’t put up with no (crap). So I flat-out wrecked his ass back. I guess we’re even—we’ll see. That’s what happens when you get run over. You pay ‘em back. I won’t be like, ‘Oh, it’s Kyle Busch. He didn’t mean to.’ (Screw) him.”
Busch’s take-no-prisoners approach has served him well over the years. He has earned championships in Cup and the Xfinity Series and 206 victories in the NASCAR’s top tours. But the game has changed and drivers are more aggressive than ever. While Busch might be the most talented racer in NASCAR, he won’t advance his cause by collecting enemies along the way.