Saturday night was an encapsulation of so many things that are good and bad about teammates. Some drivers helped their teammates succeed, some ended their teammate's night, and some just couldn't get out of each other's way. With the driver movement that is already set to take place at the end of the year, the dynamics of how soon-to-be-former teammates will interact in the future are beginning to take shape now. Saturday night, we learned the end result of those departures could be not just hurt feelings…but even some irreparably damaged relationships down the line.
There were no such hard feelings at Roush Fenway Racing. On the final lap of Saturday night’s Pepsi 400, Jamie McMurray was leading the outside line into turn three, hotly pursued by not just Kyle Busch but his teammate, Carl Edwards. Edwards had a very good run going, and could have swung to the outside to make it three wide, sweeping around and giving himself a chance to take the win. Instead, Edwards chose to stay behind his teammate, pushing him forward while giving him the opportunity to battle one-on-one with Kyle Busch for the victory. McMurray and Edwards' teammate Greg Biffle also chose to stay in line behind the two, effectively driving home three Top 6 finishes for the Roush contingent while avoiding a last lap fiasco like the one that occurred at the end of the Daytona 500. It was the type of unified performance a car owner dreams of, one that solidifies how the Roush Fenway contingent may have finally bonded together in the wake of losing their leader, Mark Martin, before the season began. After the race, Edwards was gushing with feelings of joy over McMurray’s win; he claimed he chose to help his teammate because he wanted to see him have a shot at a victory that had been eluding him for so long. That kind of teamwork speaks volumes for the future of Roush Fenway racing. After a year and a half of struggles, McMurray has finally proven he has meshed with a team that struggled to accept him at times, finally ready to try and live up to the potential that he has been promising for years.
But not every group of teammates knows how to play nice. First, you had the Hendrick brigade at odds with each other, both on the track and off it. With the race winding down, Jeff Gordon was behind McMurray, not Kyle Busch, for several laps to push him towards the front. It was rather obvious that, try as he might, Gordon could not push McMurray far enough ahead of Busch to get both of them clear, giving Gordon a chance to battle McMurray for the win. But without hesitation, Gordon kept going…leaving Kyle Busch hung out to dry on the inside.
Gordon’s refusal to help Busch was easy to see for anyone watching the race. The most glaring example was with three laps left; McMurray and Busch were side-by-side going down the backstretch, Gordon was directly behind McMurray, and there was a gap of three to four car lengths between Busch and the car behind him. Gordon could have easily moved down and attempted to help his teammate make a charge for the win; however, Gordon chose to stay in the high line and assist, not only a rival team, but a rival manufacturer.
Losing one of his biggest allies was clearly a shame for Busch; the No. 5 car was clearly one of the strongest cars all night, and Gordon could have easily given a boost that should have resulted in a 1-2 finish for Hendrick. But the truth can be tough to swallow; since Busch is leaving the team at the end of the year, he was not high on Gordon's priority list as the race wound down to its conclusion. That became even more evident on pit road after the race when Busch attempted to congratulate Gordon, even though Gordon had not tried to congratulate Busch…and Gordon turned his back on his teammate. It was a rather sad sight to see from a driver that is supposed to be a professional icon in the sport.
The way Busch was treated Saturday night speaks volumes about his status at Hendrick. It is clear that he is on his own for the rest of the year. If he is to make the Chase, he'll have to do it himself; despite some concerns surrounding his post-race comments, where he was critical of his own organization, much of what he said rings true. It definitely won't be long before Busch is shut out of team meetings and ostracized from the group, similar to the same way Brian Vickers was treated on his way out the door last year. As Busch attempts to move forward, the way he handles this adversity will likely determine how much interest there is in him as a free agent…and where that interest comes from. The path ahead is clear; Busch has the opportunity to show that he is maturing, or he can cost himself dearly by handling this poorly and losing his composure. After Saturday night, he’d be best to grin and bear it rather than mouth off.
Speaking of mouthing off, the dustup between Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin was perhaps the night’s most surprising teammate squabble. Merely 15 laps into the race, Hamlin was leading with Stewart on his tail coming out of turn four. Hamlin's car was obviously beginning to lose its handling, and he was having trouble getting off of the corner very well. Stewart closed rapidly brhind Hamlin and, instead of lifting off the gas, drove right into his right rear cornerpanel. That immediately broke Hamlin loose and resulted in both cars hitting the wall; the resulting wreck effectively ended both their nights.
As if the fact that a teammate took out another teammate wasn't bad enough, Stewart then got on TV and tried to blame his mistake completely on Hamlin, who was simply racing patiently early while doing his best to control his car. Stewart went on to accuse Hamlin of trying to wreck him during practice on Friday, a “wreck in the making” which no television camera captured on tape. Stewart then walked away in a huff, refusing to talk to his teammate even as both cars were repaired side-by-side.
The damage to those cars was eventually fixed, but the damage to JGR’s chemistry could be far more serious if Hamlin and Stewart do not put this problem aside…and quick. Both drivers have a very good chance to make a run at the championship this year, but internal fighting could seriously sabotage both of their efforts. Both team’s have suffered through enough bad luck this year…the last thing either one needs is to deal with bad blood.
Racing is an individual sport. Each team is out to do the very best they can in any given race, and thankfully team orders are not very prevalent in the Cup series. However, it is still good to know that you have members of your organization on the track with you, and you should be able to count on them to help you if the time comes that it is between you and a competitor. If teammates cannot work together on the track, that disconnection will carry over to the shop and ultimately fracture the delicate chemistry that holds an organization together. Big teams are a fact of life in Cup racing today and for the foreseeable future, so drivers have to learn to work together if they have any hope of making it to the Chase, and ultimately, winning a championship.
Looks like Stewart and Hamlin could take a lesson from Roush Fenway.
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