NEW YORK – The first sign of a lingering discord between Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch came after their 1-2 finish at Richmond, when Busch made sure to point out how clean he raced his teammate with the win on the line.
A second verbal volley was lobbed during an episode of Busch's ESPN weeklong reality special, when he made mention of how difficult it is to have a discussion with Hamlin. Fans for sure noticed the back-to-back jabs, and speculation mounted that Joe Gibbs Racing's two championship contenders were at odds.
Turns out, it's much ado about nothing.
"I was just making a point," Busch said Wednesday during NASCAR's annual visit to New York to promote the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
"There was an opportunity for me to get in there and get dirty, knock him out of the way, but I thought better of it. We all want momentum going into the Chase, not another something to be fighting about."
The relationship between the two JGR stars will be critical to manage over the next 10 weeks. The teams rely on each other for information and advice during at-track debriefs, and Busch's crew gleaned an important tip from Hamlin's crew right before Saturday night's race at Richmond that contributed to the 1-2 finish.
Managing and maintaining that information flow will be the best shot either JGR driver has at dethroning four-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
But there's no denying the relationship has had its swings, most notably earlier this season after a wreck between the two in the All-Star race and Busch vented over his radio "I swear to God, I am going to kill (him)."
It led to an immediate post-race closed-door meeting with owner Joe Gibbs, and the issue seemed to be settled. Then Hamlin fanned the flames a week later in one of the more entertaining press conferences in years.
"Each year I think Kyle's going to grow up and he just doesn't," Hamlin said that day. "Until he puts it all together, that's when he'll become a champion, and right now he just doesn't have himself all together."
Gibbs helicoptered into the track to be present for qualifying later that day, and the teammates have been fairly quiet off the track since.
During a visit Wednesday to The Associated Press headquarters, Hamlin said there's no issues between the two.
"I think Kyle just has different ways of expressing the way he feels about things," Hamlin said.
"We have personalities that can be difficult to get through to at times, and a lot of it is just you are afraid to go up to your teammate or another driver and talk about (racing issues). Me and Kyle have never really had that talk, but I feel like except for the All-Star race, our on-track relationship has been good. Never been any altercations, never really raced each other that hard. And I think what he was doing was just trying to prove a point and show that he's a clean teammate."
Busch and Hamlin have been two of the best drivers all season.
Hamlin heads into the Chase opener Sunday at New Hampshire as the top-seed. Busch, a three-time winner this season, is 30 points behind Hamlin. Racing for the win Saturday night at Hamlin's home track, Busch could have moved his teammate in an effort to win the race and grab the final 10 bonus points.
But he stayed in line, settled for second, and talked about it after the race.
Would that change with the championship on the line?
"If it does, it's going to be no-holds barred," he said. "If it comes down to me having to win the race in order to win the championship or if he wins the race he wins the championship, it's going to be whatever happens."
In the same breath, though, Busch revealed a clear understanding of the big picture.
"If it comes down to where he wins the race and I finish second, it's going to be an awfully disappointing night for (my) team, but yet a very exciting one for (his)."
Both are quick to credit each other for where they are right now, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out over the next 10 weeks. The communication has never been better, and Busch credits Hamlin for helping him improve his short track program.
Where it goes with a title on the line, and how the information flow continues, remains to be seen.
"You would certainly hope the information would continue to be traded back and forth," Busch said. "I always give as much help as I can honestly give and I don't hold anything back. For me to help Denny be where he's at now, it's been good and I think it's good for JGR as a whole. But there may be times when he beats me in a race, I'll just have to go back and beat him in the next one."