With the start of the Chase For The Sprint Cup looming, drivers already in position or scrambling to secure one of the 12 playoff spots can be forgiven for casting long glances over their shoulders.
After all, racers have long memories, and issues linger.
With the start of the 10-race playoff on the horizon, the last thing a potential title contender wants to deal with is unfinished business with a fellow competitor.
“You don’t want enemies, issues, or anything lingering, but you just don’t have that luxury at times,” says five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “It’s just not how it works out.
“Issues that develop throughout the year, they have their arc and they run their path. Some are more heated and last longer, while others kind of burn out and fizzle quicker. You just have to take it as it is, and I think the way that things are handled on the track sets the tone from there on out.”
Johnson’s issues have been front and center of late, a late-race squabble with Kurt Busch at Pocono earlier this month still bubbling underneath the surface.
But those two are hardly the only drivers that have had issues, however large or small, this season. Similar incidents involving Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya, Montoya and Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards have surfaced at one time or another.
Sometimes the silencing of such matters is handled with a phone call, while on other occasions it might be a face-to-face conversation in the garage or on pit road.
Occasionally, it’s left to fester, stored away in the back of the mind until the opportunity to retaliate arises.
“If it turns into wrecking cars ... man, that is the worst kind of situation that you can have going into the Chase,” Johnson says. “Because as soon as that driver, if he is a Chase driver, or even if he is not, he holds all the power and all the cards. And at some point he can just dump you.
“But if its something ... verbal and just a dislike situation between some drivers, then you just make it difficult when you are around each other. ... You shoot each other the bird on the straightaways and its fine.
“But when it turns into tearing up race cars, that is the part that no one wants to have happen. Things rarely get to that level so you just kind of roll with it.”
Such disagreements, says Joey Logano, are best settled as quickly as possible, regardless of whether problems surface early in the season or as the Chase draws near. The sooner any such issues can be resolved, in whatever manner, the sooner both drivers can move on.
“I think you need to mend them no matter what,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver says. “You don’t want it hanging over your head for a long time. You want to finish them as soon as you can.
“Sometimes you can call and everything’s OK and sometimes you have to take action on the race track. That’s something I’ve learned how to do in the past, because I struggled with that when I first started. But now I feel like I know the right way to deal with those types of things.”
Newman says that disputes left unresolved are “probably going to come up” later.
“In reference to the 22 (of Kurt Busch) and 48 (of Johnson), they’ve had those issues before,” he says. “Jimmie still won five [championships] in a row, so ...
“But based on Kurt’s comments – of that’s the way it’s always been [between them], the way they’ve always raced one another – I don’t think it’s much of an issue.”
Newman had his own nasty feud with Montoya, which allegedly included a physical altercation in the NASCAR hauler. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver says he isn’t worried about any potential problems with Montoya or other drivers.
“I’m just going to be happy if I make it back in the Chase this year,” he says.
Retaliation might be the likely response for a driver who feels he has been slighted on the track, but that’s not always the wisest option, says four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
Fellow Chase competitors “have as much to lose as you do,” Gordon says when asked if a driver should attempt to mend any fences before the Chase.
“What I try to do is just race guys as clean as I can, but as hard as I can leading into the Chase to show them the way that I want to race them and hope that they race me the same way back,” he says.
“If I feel like it needs to have a conversation, then I certainly will have a conversation with them.
“I think I’ve expressed before that this whole calling guys on Mondays and Tuesdays to talk about what happened – I’m just not for that. That’s just not the way that I grew up doing it in this sport.
“Shoot, we almost didn’t have cell phones when I was racing here in the early stages [of my career]. We just didn’t have one another’s phone numbers just to pick up and call. We didn’t have Twitter, we didn’t have all those things, so I’m sort of old school when it comes to that.”
For the most part, Gordon says, such situations “just sort of work themselves out.”
“You certainly don’t want to have any enemies, especially enemies outside the Chase,” he says. “Everybody is out there fighting for something, but when you’re out there fighting for the championship, the last thing you want is a guy that has a lot less to lose and has something he feels like he owes you.
“With a guy like that, I think you might put a little extra effort into mending those wounds.”