NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Teammate Turmoil in NASCAR – Growing Trend or Passing Fad?

NASCAR and motorsports have often reflected the current trends and times that we live in. Just as in pop culture, what might be cool today is stale tomorrow, as today’s Affliction shirt promises to become tomorrow’s mesh tank top. These sorts of fads by definition regularly come and go, just as the happenings in our little concentric circle of stock car racing.

In the early 1990s, for example, thanks to one driver in particular it suddenly became en vogue to paint your car black. Then, by the mid-to-late ’90s, following years of revulsion, everybody suddenly wanted to run a Ford. The first part of the past decade gave rise to the to the (I swore I’d never use this stupid term…) “Young Gun,” and putting a Dodge in your garage was all the rage.

Today, however, things are a bit different. While the 1990s heralded the multi-car team concept that is employed in other forms of racing around the globe, the second decade of the new millennium has fostered a new normal:

Public condemnation and discord between teammates.

While inter-team rivalry is nothing new to NASCAR, the airing of dirty laundry in public between drivers is a relatively new practice. Case in point: the spat between Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch following an incident in the final segment of the All-Star Race two weeks ago at Charlotte. Busch attempted to pass Hamlin on the outside of turn 4, but never really got there. Hamlin had moved up on the track towards Busch’s lane, which caused Busch to drift up higher into the marbles, then the outside wall. While that did not take him out, the blown tire that would result a few laps later would be Busch’s undoing – both figuratively and literally.

“Somebody better keep me away from Denny Hamlin after this (expletive deleted) race is over,” he screamed into the radio, “Because I swear I am going to kill that mother (expletive deleted). We had this mother (expletive deleted) race won, it was won!”

Fantastic theater, to be sure, but the type that in NASCAR usually ends after Act I. Instead, what followed in the media center a week later – after assurances from Hamlin immediately following the fracas and team heart-to-heart in his hauler that everything was OK – was not something we’re accustomed to seeing in NASCAR.

“I challenge anyone to be in that position and to change the way that I drove,” Hamlin said, a tone of defiance disturbing the awkward “peace” between the two. “The thing is that he [Busch] was never there, there was never a hole for his car to fit in, so he has a gas pedal and a brake just like I do. He could choose to check up and pass me in the next corner, or put his car in the fence like what happened.”

Fair enough. After all, it was for a million dollars, and as we were reminded each lap, it was not a points-paying race. It was checkers or wreckers, bring back the steering wheel, second place was the first loser, et al.

That being said, Hamlin’s tone became decidedly pointed when addressing moving forward with Busch and letting the bygones be just that, a philosophy he had first alluded to after their meeting in the No. 11 transporter a week earlier.

“I’m not going to put too much effort in it, to be honest with you,” he claimed nearly a week later. “Kyle brings this stuff up himself and he gets mad at the media for asking him questions about his blow-ups and stuff, but he does it to himself. I don’t want to be part of it. Any drama that he wants to create or anything is on him. Anything he says on the radio is on him. That’s all I’m going to say, and I’m going to be done with it.”

“Each year, I think Kyle’s going to grow out of it and he just doesn’t. Until he puts it all together, that’s when he’ll become a champion. Right now, he just doesn’t have himself all together.”

Seizing the opportunity to fill a vacuum that has been noticeably empty at Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin closed with, “I didn’t say that I was going to take over this team or be the leader of this team, but somebody’s got to be the leader; it ain’t going to be Kyle.”

When the season started, many of us just assumed the much ballyhooed message of “Have at it boys, the gloves are off!” meant that we’d see somebody get punted at Martinsville, have another pit road episode where somebody gets turned around going 30 mph after the race, or, if we’re lucky, somebody pushes someone with a helmet on. I didn’t think it would devolve into Samuel L. Jackson-esque radio transmissions and line-in-the-sand condemnations such as Hamlin’s.

Mind you, this isn’t the first time that teammates have failed to see eye-to-eye, this year or before. Juan Pablo Montoya got things started off in 2010 at Las Vegas, asserting after a wreck that teammate Jamie McMurray was, “just trying to prove to people he can drive a racecar, and I guess he isn’t doing too many favors on this team.” I can still picture Ken Schrader and Ricky Rudd hurtling towards the old backstretch pit wall at Martinsville after battling for the lead in 1990 when both drove for Hendrick Motorsports, violating the golden rule of team orders: Don’t take each other out.

Dale Earnhardt was never really too enthused about Mike Skinner’s addition as a teammate to the No. 3 car that won six championships at RCR prior to his arrival, and Ryan Newman’s icing of Rusty Wallace’s recognition at Martinsville in 2004 was well documented. That eventually boiled over again years later in the press, with Wallace’s comments on Newman’s departure – or dismissal – from Penske Racing at the end of 2008 proving to be a none-too-glowing review of the situation at hand.

Roush Fenway Racing, in seasons past, has appeared to be a hotbed of inner-squad squabbles; with at one time as many as five teams competing beneath one roof, somebody was going to get their toes stepped on. Greg Biffle and Mark Martin experienced a twinge of friction at one time, while Carl Edwards looked to be in the act of introducing Matt Kenseth to his friend ol’ Bumpy Knuckles following their tiff at Martinsville in 2007. Conversely, Biffle and Kenseth seemed to get under the skin of one another a few years ago when each was jockeying for position to be top dog at RFR.

These, however, were but minor flareups compared to the big, red, throbbing, hemorrhoid of discontent that exists between the No. 11 and No. 18 drivers today.

Teammates in racing have always been looked at as a bit of an oxymoron. Like Richard Petty said following the incident between Busch and Hamlin, “You have to look out for your teammate to some extent, but you don’t make the same money, and you ain’t going to the same bank.”

So just as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson had their run-in earlier this year, the bad blood that seems to be fueling both Hamlin and Busch to outperform one another also threatens to derail the common goal of their teams and JGR as an organization: win races, contend for championships and dethrone Hendrick Motorsports as the premier organization in NASCAR.

Are these recent occurrences just a passing fad or a growing trend in NASCAR? Might it be due to the personalities involved, or simply the result of the “anything goes” mantra that been the rallying cry for NASCAR in 2010? Granted, this is not just confined to stock car racing – witness this past weekend’s calamity in Turkey between Formula 1 Team Red Bull drivers Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel while fighting for the lead.

Whatever the outcome, we still have a front-row seat and a pair of teammates who are both quick with a quip and look to be battling up front for the foreseeable future. With a possible title on the line this season, you’d think it would end in a truce sooner rather than later. But as this latest duel plays itself out both on the track and in the press, the war of words looks to have a bit more staying power than either feathered hair or the stonewashed jeans with zippers on the cuff.

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