Race fans, imagine this…
Jimmie Johnson is leading Jeff Gordon by one point at this year’s season-ending race at Homestead, Florida. Johnson runs one spot ahead of Gordon on the track, when all of a sudden, he receives an order over his in-car radio from Chad Knaus instructing him to let his teammate move ahead. Dejected, Johnson obeys the edict, watches the No. 24 swing by, and remains helpless as Gordon goes on to win his fifth NASCAR Cup championship.
Sound crazy? It is actually not as far-fetched as it seems. Unless the hierarchy of the sport steps up to the plate and takes action to stop the issuing of “team orders,” something similar to my illustration is almost certain to occur in NASCAR. It may not be this season, or even the next – but eventually a championship will be determined by the whim of an owner, and not by honest competition on the track.
In my column last week entitled NASCAR Is Ripe For Scandal, I detailed two known instances since the start of the 2007 Chase for the Nextel Cup 10-race championship in which non-Chase participants have given up finishing positions to teammates contending for the title. In case you missed it, Greg Biffle began the controversy by admitting on SPEED to permitting Roush Fenway teammate Carl Edwards to pass him late in the race; the move allowed Edwards to improve his position in the finishing order from 13th to 12th at Loudon, N.H. The very next week at Dover, Casey Mears, according to team radio transmission transcripts acquired by the Frontstretch staff, likewise relinquished a certain fifth-place finish to his Hendrick Motorsports stablemate, Kyle Busch. As a result, the youngster also gained undeserved points in his quest for the Nextel Cup title.
This topic has generated a fair amount of discussion and interest among fans of the sport, but I am taken aback at the level of acceptance by others to the practice of owners manipulating the outcome of a NASCAR Cup race by ordering one driver to not race another. Regardless of what questionable concessions in the past were tolerated in the name of courtesy or sportsmanship, “team orders” should not be condoned – either by fans or by NASCAR. As I have previously stated, and continue to maintain, artificially manufacturing the natural course of a sporting event is fraudulent, unethical, and counterintuitive to the standards of conduct that all participants in said contest should be expected to uphold. Maybe this sport has always been just a little dishonest, but a little dishonest is akin to being just a little pregnant, both are conditions that are certain to grow larger in time. And in the case of “team orders,” the situation has reached a breaking point – largely due to the Chase format – which requires corrective measures to be implemented by NASCAR as soon as possible. Otherwise, the sport will see a steady and rapid decline of its credibility.
As for the hypothetical situation I described in which the Hendrick teammates conspire to “gift” a championship to Gordon, I only half-heartedly believe that if such a scenario were to play out in the championship hunt that such an order would be given. Nonetheless, the facts are that both Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing drivers have proven they’re not above conceding positions for their teammates. And is it wrong? The answer to me is yes – but while it is certainly unethical, it is apparently allowable, at least until this sport says differently.
NASCAR’s Managing Director of Corporate Communications, Ramsey Poston consented to be interviewed by Frontstretch on these very concerns as a follow-up to my column this week. Excerpts from that interview are as follows:
Frontstretch: What is NASCAR’s reaction to recent information that indicates that both Casey Mears and Carl Edwards were under “team orders” to give their Chase contending teammates their positions in the running order?
Poston: “We really would like to think that no driver would pull over. But this is a team sport, to a degree, as well. And we really can’t police it, teams would create their own language and what have you.”
Frontstretch: Have there been recent discussions within NASCAR on this issue?
Poston: “Not really, there have been very few instances of it. We’re aware that teams have worked together for five bonus points. But at some level, this is a team sport. Ultimately, it will be self-policing. Sponsors will police this as well. They will start asking questions if their car is being affected. But we will continue to monitor it.”
It should be pointed out that this issue has been largely ignored by other colleagues in the racing media, and it would have been easy enough for NASCAR to simply not have commented – at least for now – on this topic. Additionally, there has yet to be a large backlash against this practice to date by the fans of the sport, a situation that would no doubt spur them to take what I believe are needed drastic measures to put a stop to “team orders.” So, as a result, I am led to believe that NASCAR, in agreeing to comment and explain their position on the matter, truly does not see it as I do – a train wreck just waiting to happen.
Now, Mr. Poston may be correct and sponsors will not tolerate the practice to the extent of team owners giving away wins to another team. But where were they when Biffle gave up his 12th-place finish, and Mears his fifth-place result?
Besides the general acceptance by some of this practice, I have been told repeatedly by stock car enthusiasts that they believe, as Mr. Poston alluded to, that even if NASCAR were to issue a clear and stern position to owners, orders would still be issued by owners to their drivers… albeit more covertly. I disagree with that line of thinking. NASCAR can enforce a ban on the practice, at least to a satisfactory degree of certainty that their race results are as legitimate as other sports with which they compete for fan support. Certainly, Major League Baseball cannot prevent a pitcher from throwing a big fat one over the plate, or an offensive lineman deliberately missing his block in the National Football League. And if a National Basketball Association player chose to “tank” a free throw, it would be hard to prevent or prove. But in those sporting organizations such instances, if discovered, are dealt with harshly. Fans are not accepting of athletes in those arenas fraudulently influencing the outcome of the event, and I’m confident they wouldn’t in stock car racing under the same circumstances, either.
Race “fixing” should become a “poison pill” for anyone in the sport involved in it, whether it’s for fifth or 40th; and that, in my estimation, should be the policy of the sanctioning body. The organization should impose such severe penalties for these occurrences that no one would consider the risk worth the consequences. Penalties along the lines of $10 million or more and a mandatory two-year suspension for any owner, driver, crewman or sponsor involved in the deception could go a long way towards bringing a quick halt to a rapidly growing practice.
Further, drivers should be protected from even being asked to “take one for the team.” I sincerely doubt that there is a driver in NASCAR that truly wants to give up a hard fought position; by being asked to pull over, they’re being put in a true “no win situation.” NASCAR should make it mandatory that every owner provides specific language in the driver’s contract protecting them from being subjected to “team orders,” for any position and for any reason.
And to that the difficult issue of policing a “whistleblower” program, designed to catch those violating the rules, and the sport would be in much better shape. Under my proposal, should anyone present to the sanctioning body that teams conspired to intentionally skew the result of an event, they would be handsomely rewarded – to the tune of $10 million or more.
Periodically, all organizations and businesses have to reexamine their policies and procedures. NASCAR is no different, and they are being taken to task due to what I believe is a growing problem that has to be addressed. Should they take swift and appropriate action to correct the problem, they will head off what has the potential to be a very damaging situation in the future. But if they don’t… look out.
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