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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Life is a Team Sport, But is NASCAR?

We’ve all heard it: the winning driver in victory lane, thanking his teammates, without whom he surely could not have prevailed. Well, OK, maybe not in those exact words, because he’d sound like a dork, but you know the drill. Thank those teammates!

So, how important are those teammates, really?

In a perfect world, of course, teammates would have completely similar driving styles, share all their setup information, draft with each other, block for each other, park next to each other in the motorhome lot and have a cookout every Saturday night.

Maybe that’s taking it too far. As everyone knows in today’s NASCAR, success generally lies in multi-car teams. But how important is it, really, for those drivers to get along? Do they need to share any and all information? And is there such a thing as taking being a team player too far?

Do teammates need to get along? Well, yes and no. Obviously, it’s better if they do. Even on teams with open information sharing, one has to wonder what goes on behind closed doors when two of those teammates don’t get along. Does all the information really get shared? Obviously, if the team owner demands that all notes be shared, the crew chiefs have little say in the matter. But drivers can share information too: the best lines, what other drivers are doing, how to use the track to the best advantage and, well, who is going to give good information to someone they resent?

There are sets of teammates who don’t seem to get along – Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards have had some well-publicized spats over the years – most notably an incident in which Edwards faked a punch at Kenseth, who was not amused. A third Roush Fenway driver, Jamie McMurray, also said that Edwards had said some less-than-choice words for him on occasion. Given that the Roush Fenway camp does often seem to be on different pages, you have to wonder if these guys are helping each other.

On the flip side, the drivers at Hendrick Motorsports seem to get along remarkably well. And all four HMS teams seem to run well every week. If the No. 88 isn’t on par, it doesn’t appear to be that Dale Earnhardt Jr. can’t get along with Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon. If anything, it certainly comes across that his teammates genuinely want to see him run better. If Hendrick is the gold standard in teamwork, well, perhaps that goes a long way toward explaining why the team has been dominant for several years.

Even teammates who get along famously aren’t automatically going to be able to share everything. Drivers have different driving styles and what works for Gordon, for example, doesn’t necessarily work for Johnson, whose driving style is more like Earnhardt’s. Drivers within a team need to know what information they can use, and what simply will not work for them. If one driver likes to manhandle a tight car, for example, he may not be of much help to the teammate who likes his car so loose it’s on the edge of wrecking every lap. It’s just not going to work, but that doesn’t mean that these are unsuitable teammates by any means.

But what about the teammate who, on purpose or not, wrecks his own stablemate to improve his position? Brian Vickers has been on both ends of the situation. He dumped teammate Johnson to win at Talladega in October 2006, and was recently dumped by new teammate Scott Speed. Perhaps the answer is in how it’s handled by both parties. Vickers eventually apologized to Johnson, and though Vickers left Hendrick Motorsports after the 2006 season, the two remain friends. In the long run, that has to play over on the racetrack. Johnson doesn’t race Vickers with a chip on his shoulder, a chip that could possibly make a driver be just a little too pushy, too aggressive at the wrong time. That works in both drivers’ favor.

On the flip side, when Vickers was wrecked by Speed recently, Speed did not (to date) apologize to Vickers, and Vickers says that he is a little puzzled. His frustration was evident. Will Vickers think twice about helping Speed on the track? Time will tell, but human nature is a strange and powerful influence, and let’s be honest… who hasn’t felt a little vindictive when wronged? There are no easy answers here. Should a teammate forgive without hearing an apology? Should the other teammate apologize if he doesn’t mean it? It’s just not as simple as it looks on paper.

On another hand entirely, how far should a teammate go? Is allowing your teammate to pass you to go gain five points that you know he needs too far? How about allowing him to pass in the closing laps for a few extra, precious points. Team orders are dangerous territory. Many teams employ the first practice, after all those bonus points could mean the difference between a Chase berth and an “also-ran” check at the end of the year. As of Daytona, Martin is in 13th in points. Is it wrong for Johnson or Gordon to help him out? I will say that I don’t like to see it, but I do understand it, especially in this NASCAR where making the Chase and then winning it are hyped to the last breath. It doesn’t really hurt the sport for Martin to slide by Johnson for a lap, and then let Johnson back around. It’s like cleaning out porta-potties for a living – it’s not pretty, but it’s business.

Ironically, while HMS sets the gold standard for teamwork, the organization also has a blight on it’s name (or ought to have) for taking the whole concept one step too far. In 2007, Kyle Busch was in the Chase and struggling, while Hendrick teammate Casey Mears missed a Chase berth, and so, when asked, Mears allowed Busch to pass him in the closing laps of one race as the better finishing position meant more points for the struggling Busch. While it was admirable on Mears’s part on one level, it was also despicable. He never should have been asked, plain and simple. Requests like that endanger the chemistry that teams work so hard to build. To his credit, Mears was disgusted afterwards, saying that he would never, ever do that again and the sour taste he had for it was surely felt among fans as well. That level of team orders is a grotesque twist on what teamwork should be.

All in all, teamwork in NASCAR can be beneficial; just look at the top teams and the level of communication between them and you’ll see why they win. But teamwork gone wrong can destroy those relationships. Then you get the whole convoluted issue of team orders.

Like many other things in life, teamwork is a wonderful thing. At least as long as it doesn’t go to extremes.

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