- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch were ordered to steer clear of each other yesterday in hopes of preventing a repeat of their high-octane confrontation on the first day of Speedweeks.

NASCAR officials summoned Stewart and Busch for a follow-up meeting in the morning, just hours after the two drivers tangled on the track — and possibly in the NASCAR officials’ trailer afterward. The entire garage was buzzing over Busch purportedly insulting Stewart and Stewart retaliating with a punch — claims no one would confirm or deny.

NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said officials have not decided whether to penalize either driver, but delivered a stern warning.

“You two guys better give each other plenty of space,” Hunter said. “You clearly understand where we are with this and we’re going to continue to think about it.”

Hunter said any resulting penalties would be announced tomorrow or Tuesday.

Busch and Stewart, former series champions with a history of clashing on the track, crashed during the final practice session Friday night.

Busch attempted to block Stewart and got hit from behind, damaging both cars. Busch retaliated by slamming into the side of Stewart’s car twice as they drove back toward the garage. Stewart then used his car to block Busch from entering the garage.

Both drivers were immediately told to meet with NASCAR officials. And that’s where the details get a little sketchy. Talk spread throughout the garage that Stewart and Busch continued to bicker once inside the heated, closed-door meeting.

NASCAR officials at the meeting refused to comment. NASCAR president Mike Helton said: “I wasn’t in there.”

Stewart’s car owner, Joe Gibbs, flew in for the second meeting and also refused to comment on the specifics of the confrontation.

“Anything that happens in there, stays in there,” Gibbs said.

Both drivers downplayed the confrontation during television interviews.

“Tony and I are competitors. We always have been and we’re going to be just fine,” Busch said. “We’re going to move forward. We know we need to help each other out in the future so that doesn’t happen again.”

Stewart said Busch’s fender-slamming wasn’t a big deal.

“What Kurt did coming onto pit road … I’ve done a lot worse than what he did, so I’m not going to throw stones,” Stewart said. “Kurt’s emotion and desire and passion to win are much like mine. The easiest way for us to go out and do what we do is just agree to disagree and go on from there.

“The best thing to do is to go on and move forward and not let this linger between the two of us. We’ve met in the NASCAR trailer twice now and we’re both past it and we’re hoping that the media will respect that fact, too, and let us move on from it.”

Stewart called Busch a “great driver.”

“He got here for a reason — it’s because he’s got talent,” he said in a TV interview. “That passion is what makes us all as good as we are. That’s part of racing. That’s what happens. It’s no different than going to any Saturday night short track. We both got our cars fixed for tonight and we’re ready to go.”

Although NASCAR officials have cracked down on misbehavior in recent years, they came into this season saying they were more receptive to drivers showing their emotions — the “NASCAR we fell in love with,” as Hunter called it.

But Hunter said officials weren’t comfortable with drivers expressing that emotion by deliberately bending fenders.

“When I say that’s the NASCAR we fell in love with, I’m not talking about a guy taking his car and ramming another car on the race track,” Hunter said. “I’m talking about drivers getting out and showing that I’m mad, I’m upset and venting that emotion. They certainly did that.”

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