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 – a la 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.”
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 1 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.
Points leader 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.