The Frontstretch: NASCAR Teammates : For Good, Or For Evil? by Mike Neff -- Monday July 9, 2007

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NASCAR Teammates : For Good, Or For Evil?

Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday July 9, 2007

 

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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Steve M.
07/10/2007 05:36 AM
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Hey Mike, regarding your comments about Kyle and Jeff; were you actually on pit row, standing right next to Jeff Gordon, watching intently as Kyle came up to Jeff to congratulate him? If so, did you then personally see Jeff Gordon look out of the corner of his eye, see Kyle, and deliberately turn his back? I keep reading that Kyle was shunned by Jeff after the race. The ONLY way I could perceive that happening is if Kyle actually went right up to Jeff to pat him on the back or shake his hand and Jeff refused his advances. Now if you can ABSOLUTLEY tell me that is what happened, then I may agree with what you said; if not, it was extremely poor journalism on your part. Also, I saw the same post-race interview with Jeff that everyone else did…never once did it cross my mind that Jeff was trying to be vindictive by not congratulating Kyle. On the contrary, he was exactly the type of driver we expect him to be, very happy for a young man who hadn’t won a race in 165 starts. Why is everyone turning what Kyle is saying (actually crying about) into something that simply wasn’t there?

Mike 24
07/10/2007 05:47 AM
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Kyle Bush without a doubt is a good driver with lots of talent and alos a bigger whiner than Jeff Gordon. How can anyone possibly say the #24 could just drop down from his position running high on the track and help his teammate. A good example here is Biffle radioed his teammates that if they want help they would have to follow his line because that is where his car had to be for handeling…GET IT? Kyle needs to quit blaming everyone around him when he doesnt get his way…….GEZZ its not rocket science Kyle.

M. B. Voelker
07/10/2007 06:32 AM
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Bottom line, Carl Edwards showed what teamwork was about when he left off pushing Kyle Busch — even though their cars were working very well together — to push his teammate.

Jeff Gordon showed what teamwork isn’t when he pushed Jamie past Kyle into the lead. To JG, teamwork only goes one direction.

I can’t help wondering something. Back in Kyle’s Busch year they were doing one of those “meet the driver” sort of TV features and Kyle held up his Official Jeff Gordon Fan Club membership card. Anyone think that card might be in little pieces in the trash now?

I hope that the situation gives Kyle that extra bit of determination and drive that will lead him to bring home the Cup.

Frank
07/10/2007 07:10 AM
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So many times I have heard Jeff Gordon talk about needing his teamates to help him. Well guess what, It was his turn and he bailed out. Shame on him for being the worst teamate of all.

Steve M.
07/10/2007 07:33 AM
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Am I missing something here or didn’t Jeff say himself during his post-race interview that he messed up there at the end of the race by trying something that didn’t work and it ended up putting him in 5th place instead of a better finish. Jeff was going for a win, and with the year he is having, he had every right to do just that. At lap 8, after the last caution and Jeff was leading, with Kyle right behind him, I don’t recall Kyle sticking around for more then a lap to assist Jeff before driving down low and leaving Jeff high and dry. Oh, but because all non-Jeff fans want only to see one side of any story concerning Jeff, you must have all forgotten about that. Also, Jeff’s last minute move didn’t work out for him and he, unlike Tony Stewart, took sole responsibility for his driving error. MB and Frank, you are obviously not Gordon fans, which is fine, but don’t trash the guy just because you don’t like him. If you have facts, provide them, if not, all you have is your opinion.

Kenneth
07/10/2007 07:55 AM
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In regards to the Stewart/Hamlin incident, Stewart (on his radio show), while still not taking full blame for the incident, said there was zero animosity towards Hamlin and that they would work it out just fine. He said that he loves Hamlin like a little brother and chalked up the post-wreck interview to being one of those ’30 seconds after a disappointing wreck’ type deals, although he did say that they can work together better as teammates in the lines of the 24/48.

I was actually expecting a little more fireworks, but ah well.

Mary D
07/10/2007 07:57 AM
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My question is this: where is Rick Hendrick in all of this? Everyone says what a great guy and great owner he is… I hope he will step up & make it clear ALL of his teams have his support & will be treated as equally as possible, no one will be shut out of team meetings, that kind of thing. If those kinds of things come to pass, it would not happen without his approval & blessing. I can’t believe he would NOT want each of his teams having a great shot at the championship going in, just because one of the drivers is leaving at the end of the year. BUT if those things do happen, I will personally be disappointed in no one but Rick Hendrick… as he is the final word on what goes on in his organization, and no one would dare do those things without his approval.

Steve M.
07/10/2007 09:08 AM
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Mary D., I couldn’t agree with you more. After Kyle’s comments Rick has to step up to the plate and put not just Kyle in his place, but the team as a whole. Granted, I don’t think Jeff brushed Kyle off, but Rick can assure that that “impression” never happens again. Rick is above all, an extremely intelligent business man and he knows that Kyle has a very good shot at the title this year. When it comes down to a champion, we fans all have our favorite drivers, but as an owner, Rick just wants to see one of his guys win the whole thing. And if it’s Kyle this year, or Jeff or Jimmie, Rick Hendrick will be a very happy man. My only fear is that Kyle, being young and immature, will take every bad pit, every bad qualifying, every bad finish and put the blame on HMS. Worse yet is my fear that if he knows he doesn’t have a chance at the top spot after the Chase begins that he’ll purposefully put Jeff or Jimmie in to the wall. If that happens, even once, I hope Rick does to Kyle what Jack did to Kurt a couple of years ago; drop him from racing for the rest of the season. Let’s just hope for all involved, including Kyle, that it doesn’t come down to that.

Brooke
07/10/2007 09:15 AM
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It shouldn’t have taken JG to realize “after the fact” that he should have healed Kyle Busch. The first thought that should have come to his mind is that was his teammate and he needed to help him out. Who cares what was said or done at the end of the race? It should have been during the race where the definition of “TEAMWORK” should have been played!!! JG fans need to stop defending him all the time and actually see how he is so championship hungry that he is willing to turn his back on a teammate. Who cares if he is leaving? It isn’t until the end of the year and there are still aces left!!!!

Brooke
07/10/2007 09:24 AM
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Sorry about my mis-spellings…my son is punching keys on the computer. Anyway, like I was trying to say…JG’s first thought should have been help my teammate!!! Right there. Over and out.

Kenny
07/10/2007 09:28 AM
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“At lap 8, after the last caution and Jeff was leading, with Kyle right behind him, I don’t recall Kyle sticking around for more then a lap to assist Jeff before driving down low and leaving Jeff high and dry.”

Exactly!!! Jeff’s car was not as good on the bottom, henceforth the staying on the top.

Jeff said it himself that he made a wrong move and it cost him the race. He was trying to win the race.

Kyle did not push Jeff, but rather took a new line….why? Because Kyle wanted to win the race.

You say the Rousch-Fenway drivers exemplified team at the end of the race? I bet you that all of them were ready for Jamie to overdrive just once so they could get around him!!!

It is freakin racin for points. It is the end of the race, and the prize is there for THE DRIVERS. At the end of the race team comes second, and the win comes first.

As for continually harping on Hendrick, get a life. KB is known for his flippant comments. He has a track record for saying idiotic things. The only reason many of you are backing KB is because he will not be coming back to Hendrick, and as such it gives you something to carp about at Hendirck.

Steve M.
07/10/2007 09:43 AM
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Amen Kenny!!!! And Brooke, let’s not forget the race earlier this year that Jeff lost to Jimmie Johnson because he refused to pull a “Tony Stewart” and didn’t put Jimmie into the wall just so he could win the race. Again, non-JG fans only see and hear what they want to see and hear. Face it, Jeff is THEE driver this year and as the season gets closer and closer to the end, he (JG) is really starting to piss off a lot of people. And why? Because he can drive and that really grinds the gears of a lot of people whose drivers just aren’t up to the same level as he is. Facts speak for themselves folks, 4 wins thus far this season and 277 points ahead of second place. Argue it. You can’t.

Pop
07/10/2007 10:54 AM
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Well, early in the race Kyle hung Jeff out. Later he pinched into the side of Jimmie a couple of times. Kyle was driving erratically and out of control the whole night. No one wanted to be by him. He even had Kenseth out for blood.

In the closing laps it is every man for himslef – no one is obligated to help anyone. Kurt even told Kyle that sitting next to him in the media center after the race. Jamie pushed Jeff to the lead earlier and maybe Jeff thought his chances were better there – not to mention he ran the high line pretty much the whole night because his car was better there.

Funnily, Brian Vickers was a commentator on “Inside Nextel Cup” last night. His take on Kyle’s comments? He saw nothing wrong with how Jeff, Jimmie, and Casey raced. He said you don’t hurt yourself to help a teammate and if you think that he picked the wrong line, you don’t go with him. He also pointed out that helping is a two way street and that there were times in the race when Kyle chose not to help his teammates. When it comes down to it every guy out on that track is out there for himself – otherwise we wouldn’t have racing.

As for the “snub”, TNT was interviewing Jeff and Kyle walked by and hit him on the arm. I guess Jeff was supposed to stop the interview.

Kyle has a ton of talent, but he also has an attitude problem, a huge chip on his shoulder, and is overly aggressive. I’ve about given up hope that he will ever settle down, learn patience, and stop driving at 110% all the time. He would find a lot more success and gain respect if he did.

John
07/10/2007 01:41 PM
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All you posters who are indicating JG didn’t help his teammate Kyle need to look at the videotape again….coming to the finish line….the lineup on the inside was….Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, and JEFF GORDON! how else do you think he got 5th place?

Victor
07/10/2007 02:38 PM
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You are absolutely right John! I saw that last night on Nascar Now. He wasn’t close enough to help Kyle but neither was his brother.

Neither Jeff or Kyle owed anything to the other one. They should do whatever was best to help them to get the win. No question about it!

I can guarantee you if I was JG (with 4 wins and 40 bonus points) I would help whoever didn’t already have bonus points (Jamie McMurray). If I couldn’t win, I would want a new race winner each week. Spread those bonus points around…..Smart thinking Jeff!

PJ
07/11/2007 11:35 AM
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I am sure you have been a long time Kyle Busch fan and are in no way taking a cheap shot at Gordon. Who in their right mind would have wanted to get anywhere near this brash loud mouth’s #5 car given his reckless driving style? Its amazing KB did not cause yet another wreck at Daytona similar to the fiasco of a crash he caused in January. And you may not have noticed that Shrub left both Johnson and Gordon in the lurch during the last laps diving out of line from behind them. And the way I saw the race, Gordon was lined up immediately behind both Bush’s during the final two laps pushing Shrubs’s inside line and not helping the outside cars lined up behind McMurray. Little Busch should consider joining Tony Stewart’s team – these egomaniacs never make any mistakes and always have someone else to blame when things go wrong. Sorry, I forgot, these two ingrates have had multiple run ins with another already. No wonder Hendrick released the SOB (son of a busch).

 

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