The Frontstretch: Team Orders, Be Damned by Thomas Bowles -- Monday September 22, 2008

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Team Orders, Be Damned

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday September 22, 2008


So much bad press has come out this year surrounding the consolidation of power within Sprint Cup. The Big Four of Jack Roush, Richard Childress, Joe Gibbs, and Rick Hendrick own three cars apiece in this year’s Chase, the only ones capable of making noise at the top during a year in which the focus was supposed to be on leveling the playing field. Instead, the chances of two cars within the same organization battling tooth and nail for the title – ala Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon from ’07 – are higher than they’ve ever been.

You don’t need me to list the concerns that type of scenario brings up; after all, we’ve been through it within the last 12 months. But on this fateful Sunday at Dover, it was nice to be reminded that no matter how much teamwork is preached off the race track, you still can’t stop a racer’s mentality on it heading to the checkered flag.

And that alone is what made Sunday’s race at Dover so great – drivers not Chasing points or falling in line but going 110 percent for the trophy that awaited one lucky man in Victory Lane. Certainly, the Monster Mile got tamed during the last 50 laps by some edge-of-your-seat, old school racing at its best between three playoff contenders giving everything they had. Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, and Carl Edwards swapped the lead back and forth several times, with Biffle finally making a daring pass for the win – on the outside, no less – with eight laps to go. Making contact with Kenseth, the two actually banged fenders – and Goodyears – causing a tire rub that led to drama during the race’s final moments, even as Biffle pulled away. In retrospect, the damage was hardly what it could have been considering the type of serious jostling that should have given their majority team owner a heart attack.

And let’s be honest; at some point, his drivers thought that’s exactly what Jack Roush must have been experiencing.

“I could tell you one thing: I was just sitting here a little bit ago when we first sat down that I wouldn’t have wanted to be in his shoes,” Biffle said in his post-race press conference. “I would have crapped my pants watching those three cars run into each other and going crazy out there. That’s just not a position I’d want to be in, I can tell you that.”

But to Roush’s credit, not a word of caution was said over the radio as he watched his cars run lap after lap, aggressively battling each other for the victory. Where the “sensible” thing could have been to tell his drivers to get in line for a 1-2-3 finish, the racer in this 20-year Sprint Cup owner won out, leaving the competition as untainted as possible – even if it meant sacrificing his own health in the process.

“Today, I hyperventilated,” Roush admitted over the race’s final laps. “I really need to have a paper bag put on my head so I can take in some CO2 and not take in all this oxygen that was making me crazy. It’s just hard not to lose your mind when you’ve got as many opportunities as there are with multiple cars to be involved in something that’s just going to break your heart… just holding your breath, breathing too fast, both at the same time, as you watch it unfold.”

Roush’s trio of Biffle, Kenseth, and Edwards may have been a bit spread out at the finish — but their spirited battle over the race’s final laps left no doubt that it was every man for himself heading to the checkered flag.

But watch — not stop — was what Jack Roush did, a rebuttal for the growing concern team orders are in becoming an increasing part of Chase strategy. After all, it was in this race one year ago Casey Mears was criticized for being “asked” by crew chief Darian Grubb to move over for Kyle Busch at the finish, gaining his then-teammate an extra five points as he battled for a title at Hendrick. And admittedly, Roush is not always the squeaky clean owner at the top – he had pulled a similar move just one week earlier, with then-playoff outsider Biffle making way for Edwards as the two battled for a Top 15 at the checkered flag. Indeed, who can forget the countless playoff occasions where Roush’s cars have been running 1-2, only for the first place car to “suddenly slow” and allow the teammate behind him to lead a lap.

This time, though, it’s hard to criticize Jack’s foolproof method to make the fans happy – keep quiet, cross your fingers, and simply let them race. And with NASCAR resembling Formula One more and more these days, that remains one critical difference between the two. With the checkered flag in sight, no one was asked to slow down; and frankly, would the drivers have even have listened if they did?

“Whether these guys were driving for different teams or [not], I think you’re going to race everybody the same,” said second-place finisher Kenseth. “I think all three of us [raced] as hard as we could race each other for the win without wrecking ourselves or each other, and Greg and I were – I was pretty close to wrecking us both on the backstretch one time. So, we just couldn’t race any harder.”

“Jack’s never given me a team order in the car before, and if he did and it was for a race win I’m sure I would be fired on Monday because you’re all going to race as hard you can race to win. It’s really, really hard to win these races — you’re going to do everything you can to try.”

Because of that, no one will question whether any of these RFR drivers gave an A+ for effort Monday morning – and that’s the best thing to come out of all of this. It was the first 1-2-3 finish for this organization since Homestead at the end of 2005; and it won’t be the last. But more than likely, this will be the one that we all remember the most.

Point leader Carl Edwards – smiling broadly minutes after it was over – summed it up best for all of us.

“That was fun,” he said with his first words in front of the press room mic. “I had a really good time.”

So did everybody else, Carl, as we finally got a chance to focus not on the problems but on the solution to fix Sprint Cup racing today – good, hard racing that’ll get fans on their feet by the checkered flag.

One hopes that’s an order we can have carried out for each of the next eight weeks.

Contact Tom Bowles

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Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
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09/22/2008 12:36 PM

It was a very forgetable race up until the final 50 laps or so . Then it turned into one of the best all year .
Boy, the wheels have sure come off of the Gibbs teams title runs . Seems to be just bad luck but WOW . Once again though the 20 car pit stops seem to be a bit off the mark . I’m not sure Tony has gained spots on a pit stop in the last 10 races . In fact , he has been staying the same or losing up to 5 spots on each stop . Not the stops that team has been known for .
I doubt we can give credit to Jack for wanting to provide the fans with good racing . More likely , there was really no way he could have prevented it . How would he tell two of his drivers to back off when all three are in the hunt for the championship . And more important , what criteria would he use to decide who he wanted to let win . No , that finish really had nothing to do with Roush ( though he will do all he can to make us think it was his master plan ) and all to do with three guys in equal cars that wanted to win .

09/22/2008 05:48 PM

I understand the concerns about multi-car teams, but think about the race at Dover and what happened. There were three guys on the same team battling for the win. With no multi-car team owners, the winner probably would have won by more than a lap. Used to happen all the time.

It’s multi-car teams that made it possible to have 16 or 17 race winners in a season instead of five.

Larry Burton
09/23/2008 12:09 AM

I was wondering when the horseshoe was gonna fall out of Kyle’s Butt. He has avoided crashes while causing quite a few this year in all the series and has had very little mechanical problems too. Looks like it’s finally catching up with him although I still think he has a chance to win the chase with some wins and good finishes and with some of the other drivers having some bad luck too. Carl Edwards has had a bunch of good luck too here recently avoiding wrecks and whatever. May be time for his to end too. Say what you want, but luck plays a large part in winning any Nascar Championship.

09/24/2008 01:38 AM

I was interested in Carl Edwards post-race where he wanted to go back out-not so he could possibly win, but just to have fun. The last time I remember a statement like that was many years ago when Davey Allison came in 2nd and wanted to go back out just to race. He and Dale Jarrett beat and banged on each other for several laps at Michigan and Dale won, by inches his 1st ever Cup race. And even back then they were both in Fords – history repeats. And Carl and Davey showed that they are/were real racers.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
Did You Notice? ... Keep On Asking, And You Will Receive A Qualifying Sigh Of Relief

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