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How “teamwork” is helping teams but hurting the sport
by Tom Bowles
NASCAR is a sport defined by individual success. Just one driver and team, not an entire motorsports operation, gets crowned with a series title. But like it or not, team cars working together at NASCAR’s highest level have had subtle impacts on the championship Chase for years. Every time the same pair of Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing pit together, allowing them to hold the draft at Talladega, someone gets a little extra edge over a single-car opponent left out to dry. Every time two Fords from Roush Fenway Racing swap positions up front, allowing both drivers to score a bonus point for leading a lap, the rival running third can only watch as Dancing with the Cars plays out ahead. Even before the era of 400-employee, four-car operations, the old championship battles were filled with owners trying to grab that little extra edge. In 1993 and ’95, respectively, Richard Childress and then Rick Hendrick entered “dummy” cars in the Atlanta season finale that could park, finish 43rd and preserve an extra three points should something happen to their championship-contending driver.
But as the stakes rise in the 2011 Chase roulette — perhaps the most wide-open battle for the title since Jimmie Johnson first won it five years ago — the worries over multi-car collusion have never been higher. Already, we’ve seen more drama in the last two weeks than during the entire regular season. Paul Menard, a Richard Childress Racing driver not involved in the postseason, was accused of spinning out intentionally during the regular season finale at Richmond, causing a caution that allowed teammate Kevin Harvick to close, pass and eventually defeat Jeff Gordon for another three Chase bonus points. Some have claimed Menard’s radio transmission was filled with chatter about whether a yellow flag was needed for the team, a charge repeatedly denied not only the driver, but by Childress himself.
“There were no team orders despite all the speculation in the media,” the owner said in a written statement last Friday, forced to respond to building controversy that even had Gordon openly questioning the ending while NASCAR investigated. “I know Paul Menard well enough that he wouldn’t have spun out on purpose even if he had been asked.”
It didn’t take long to show Childress wasn’t kidding around. For him, a “great start” meant maximizing the performance of Harvick, whose No. 29 team was the only one within his four-car operation to make the cut. Not worried about infuriating outgoing sponsor General Mills, Clint Bowyer’s pit crew was raided, the best people realigned with Harvick, while Bowyer was forced to swallow the “B” team which, in theory, could prevent him from winning races and getting his backers extra exposure. It’s like thanking Cheerios executives for their years of support by taking them to dinner at Taco Bell and then choosing to sit with new potential sponsor Post at another table.
Then, as the checkers flew at Chicagoland, the specter of team orders switched to Roush Fenway Racing and Ford. Matt Kenseth ran out of gas on the final lap and was desperately searching for any way to make it to the finish line. Enter J.J. Yeley, a fellow Blue Oval driver whose Front Row operation gets engine and chassis support from RFR. Suddenly, the underdog was the perfect candidate to play Superman; Yeley who claims he was “just trying to do Kenseth a favor” pushed the driver through Turn 3 of the final lap before backing off. The problem, of course, is that’s a NASCAR no-no; the mistake left Kenseth penalized, the first car one lap down in 21st but raised suspicion Yeley might have been asked to help, as the principles involved simply forgot the last-lap “no push” rule was still in existence. Several fans this week claimed they heard radio transmissions on NASCAR’s RaceView in which Kenseth was urging the maneuver, a charge both men have denied and will be impossible for anyone to verify.
“He didn’t ask me to push him,” Yeley said after the race, the official comments carried live on SIRIUS XM. “He just ran out of fuel in front of me and I was just trying to help out.”
How Good Samaritan-like. Still, there were plenty of people running out of fuel on the white flag lap, a number of drivers running around the apron who needed help. Even if those comments are taken at face value, what a coincidence that Kenseth happened to be the one Yeley chose, right? It’s not like these two are blood brothers separated at birth, since when have you heard of them hanging together off-track?
In the end the maneuver backfired, and Kenseth lost 17 championship points due to the penalty. But with nine races left, including the two-car tandem (regardless of the new rules) that’ll somehow resurface at Talladega, it’s clear the battle for NASCAR supremacy will include using every bullet — and driver — one has in their arsenal. Each organization has a different tantalizing option: for Hendrick, with three cars in the postseason plus a strong alliance with the Stewart-Haas duo, Mark Martin (car number six) could be used as a guinea pig for experimental setups if needed. After all, neither sponsor GoDaddy nor Martin is returning in the same capacity come 2012.
The other seven cars are a breakdown of just four teams: two from Penske (Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski), two from Gibbs (Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin), two from Roush Fenway (Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards) and RCR’s lone entry with Harvick. Among those, it’s interesting to note only Penske and Gibbs have their sponsor and driver combinations secure across the board for 2012. RFR, still searching for a sponsor for Kenseth is missing one for David Ragan, too, while continuing to work on a full-scale package for Edwards. RCR, losing the backing on Bowyer’s car (and Bowyer as well, it appears), is also saddled with putting funding together for Austin Dillon’s Nationwide effort next year — along with absorbing at least some of Kevin Harvick, Inc.’s 140 employees in a minor league merger.
I mention Silly Season sponsor talk because NASCAR economics affecting the upper class puts a greater sense of urgency towards on-track performance. Sure, the gap between first and second in points is steep — a difference of $3.175 million in posted awards last season. For these mega teams, that money creates additional exposure and funding which goes a long way when cars have the same price tag to sponsor them but few, if any, companies are stepping up.
That’s left jobs on the line, again, financial futures that often blur competitive ideals of loyalty, integrity and trust (see: NCAA conferences, all). As Chase teams like Kenseth’s try to simply survive in 2012, the necessity to win in any way possible threatens to overshadow “every man for himself.” After all, with millions on the line and extra teammates at your disposal, capable of acting as anything from an obstacle to an information filter, to even — gasp! — an “accidental” bulldozer to widen the gap amongst your rivals, how easy would it be to hide behind “Boys, Have At It,” collect the cash and survive to fight another day?
I’ve talked to so many in the NASCAR garage who feel the worst possible outcome of this Chase is if Jimmie Johnson wins the title. But I wonder if in the alternative — five men shooting for the title at Homestead — we don’t end up with something worse in the name of desperation.
For now, I’ll stay optimistic even in the face of these ugly warnings (ones that NASCAR will be powerless to stop … and what are they going to do? Dismantle the teams?). One just has to hope that when push comes to shove, respect for this sport, its fans and founders would cause everyone to play by the rules when it matters.
The sport simply cannot afford any other way.
Agree with Tom? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @NASCARBowles