NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Team Player or Manipulator: How Far Should Teamwork Go?

It was, on one extreme, an unfortunate time to have tire problems: the closing laps of the race that would decide once and for all who was in the Chase and who was left to wait ‘til next year. On the other end of spectrum sits an uglier possibility: that a driver, his own chances all but gone, either chose or perhaps even was ordered to spin the car around, bringing out the caution and giving a teammate another chance at a win that was slipping away with each lap. The question being asked after the race was, which was it?

NASCAR decided this week that the question was worth answering, though the truth is they may never have the definitive answer they seek. Unless there was a radio transmission directly to Menard making the intention clear, the answer will be murky. While Jeff Gordon notes that there was a lot of talk about needing a caution on the No. 27 radio, then a switch to the team’s backup channel just before the spin, RCR driver (and the ultimate beneficiary of the spin) Kevin Harvick said that Menard’s tire was corded and that there were other incidents during the race that could have been questionable. But even if there wasn’t a blatant demand, that doesn’t mean without a doubt there was no team order-a code word, an understanding before the race ever began wouldn’t have been transmitted over the radio.

Conversely, it’s entirely possible-certainly every bit as likely as the other scenario-that it was nothing more than an ill-timed tire failure and resultant spin. So finally, NASCAR made the statement that should have been expected since Monday: “We haven’t seen or heard anything that would indicate the No. 27 did anything inappropriate in Richmond.”

And based on what they have to go on, it’s probably the right call. The sanctioning body did add that they will continue to monitor teams throughout the Chase, and that’s also the right call. Such an instance of over-the-top “teamwork,” while it gives fans something to talk about, should not have any role in deciding the eventual champion. That’s something that should be won on merit alone.

But how far is too far, in general, for teamwork? What does it mean to take one for the team, and what crosses a line?

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One seemingly harmless spin by Paul Menard has sparked new worries about an old Chase fear…that team orders could influence the winner of stock car racing’s biggest crown.

If Menard’s spin _was_ intentional, that definitely crosses a line. Not only does something like that give an unfair advantage, it’s a safety issue, and a serious one. Even if well-timed, a single car spin has the potential to cause a chain reaction as cars check up to avoid the car or can’t see through the tire smoke it produces. The risk of injury to a competitor makes this type of move a step too far beyond the spirit of teamwork.

The same goes, of course, for intentionally spinning a competitor to help a teammate in either a race or in the overall points battle. There was plenty of speculation when Kurt Busch wrecked Mike Wallace, then his and Greg Biffle’s best Truck Series points competition for the 2000 series title, at Dover in a blatantly intentional move that Busch had acted, possibly on orders from owner Jack Roush, to improve Biffle’s title chances. If that’s true, then that’s as far across that line as you can get. Knowingly putting a driver at risk by putting him in the wall is a dirty move. Doing it to help a teammate win a race or a championship is about as low as a driver can stoop.

On the other hand, what about blocking? Should a teammate hold up the competition for as long as possible in order to help the cause? Sure. I don’t see any issue here; that’s being a team player if the racing is clean. If one driver is about to go a lap down and can hold up the leader to give a teammate a chance to catch him for the win, that’s teamwork and nothing else. If I owned a team and a driver _didn’t_ help a teammate in this type of situation, he’d be in the dog house on Monday. It’s perfectly legit, and part of the game. It’s what a teammate _should_ be doing if he can’t win the race himself. That’s part of his job.

Ditto drafting. While some fans complain about the wheeling and dealing going on with the tandem drafting at Daytona and Talladega, the reality is, it’s not going away. If two teammates can work effectively together, swapping off in the draft, cool. If it ensures that one of the team cars will be ahead at the end, what’s wrong with that? Better your teammate than someone else, and perhaps he’ll repay the favor. When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. realized they had a better shot at victory if he pushed Jimmie Johnson at Talladega in April and made the call to push Johnson in the closing laps, Johnson knew how he’d gotten to victory lane thanks to his teammate, and he’s eager to repay the favor when he can. That’s good for a team. It’s good for morale and for future teamwork. Both drivers benefit in the long and short runs. All good. That said, if a driver’s only purpose is to push a teammate, as Joey Logano has hinted might be the case in his Nationwide ride, that’s not so Kosher.

Which brings us to team orders-when one teammate is instructed to give up position so that another can pick up championship points. This one depends on the situation. If it’s a pair out of a stable swapping the lead back and forth for an extra bonus point, I don’t a have a problem with that. On the other hand, if one teammate in question decides he likes the view from the front and doesn’t give the lead back as fast as he might have said he would, I don’t have a problem with that either.

But what about when one driver is asked (or ordered) at the end of a race to give up a finishing position so that a teammate could finish higher, especially in the Chase? Yeah, that’s a bigger ball of wax. In a way, it’s manipulating the outcome of the race and possibly the championship. Again, that’s something that needs to be won on merit, not team orders. It’s also not fair to the driver who’s asked to back off, to accept a finish lower than he could have otherwise earned. Teamwork goes out the window at the end of a race with the finish on the line, and that’s how it should be. Letting a teammate (and possibly others if there’s a car or two in between) pass just for a point isn’t being a team player, because in the end, that driver has his _own_ team to answer to, not just his teammate’s. And shame on the owner who makes it happen.

There are times when being a team player is sportsmanlike and right. If a driver can hold up the competition just enough to help a teammate get past, or push him across the line for a restrictor place win, that’s part of the reason for being part of a multi-part stable. However, using the guise of “teamwork” to manipulate the outcome of a race or championship? Not cool. That goes quadruple if it involves putting other drivers in danger by causing (or being) a wreck. That’s not sportsmanlike; that’s dirty. To help a teammate win is cool. Helping a teammate’s competition to lose? Not cool.

After the last caution at Richmond raised questions about Paul Menard’s motive, NASCAR is right to monitor team radios through the Chase. While a little teamwork is part of the game, only one man can win a championship. And whoever that may be should win it the right way-on his own.

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