NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: Taking One for the Team

While only the driver’s name goes on the trophy NASCAR is and always has been a team sport. With rare exceptions over the last sixty years, even the best drivers haven’t been able to score victories in substandard machines, and few lackluster drivers have ever gotten to winners’ circle because of a vastly superior mount. Races are routinely won and lost on pit road, and if an engine built to last 500 miles only lasts 495 miles at Atlanta, Daytona or Charlotte, it doesn’t matter how many laps that unfortunate driver might have led prior to the failure.

But the issue gets a bit cloudier when it comes to teamwork between two different drivers on two different teams within the same organization.

Sunday’s Martinsville race was a classic example of pushing it to the limit by…errr…not pushing it to the limit. With the inside line a decided advantage on restarts (as has been the case for about 67 years at Martinsville) JGR teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch were juking the system all afternoon. Whichever of the pair had the lead would take the less preferable outside lane, letting his teammate have the inside starting spot. In return, the second-place driver would politely allow his teammate to get in front of him entering turn one, and the duo would race on in first and second while the rest of the pack behind them fought hard over that inside line. JGR wasn’t the first team to employ what amounts to team orders. Last fall at Martinsville, it was Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano doing the same thing on restarts much of the afternoon. In one now-infamous instance, the duo botched the baton pass which led to Keselowski and (ironically enough) Matt Kenseth tangling as Kurt Busch barreled in to seal the fate of the No. 20 car. That in turn led to Kenseth returning to the track incensed to the degree he took not Keselowski but his teammate Joey Logano out, which ended Logano’s hopes of not only winning the race but contending for a title. (Those who wish to vilify Kenseth for wrecking the No. 20 often point out Matt was nine laps down when he wrecked Logano. As I see it he had a whole lot of help getting those nine laps down.)

Nobody should have been surprised to see JGR teammates agreeing to work to their mutual benefit. In this year’s Daytona 500, the four JGR cars (and satellite teammate Martin Truex, Jr.) engaged in what amounted to formation flying rather than racing one another for most of the event. Of course Kevin Harvick came to crash the party and Kenseth got the worst end of that deal with a fourteenth place finish. Sunday he suffered an even worse fate. Apparently the team orders in place said that once the race reached ten laps to go it was every man (and team) for himself. On the final restart with 12 laps to go, Kyle Busch decided “close enough”, took the preferred inside lane for the restart and left Kenseth hung out to dry. In the outside lane and on worn tires Kenseth dropped like a rock, falling quickly into the clutches of other drivers with fresher rubber enroute to a 15th place finish.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/ NKP)
They started it: Joey Logano and Brad Keselowki shared the love and the lead at Martinsville last fall. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/ NKP)

There have been team orders within NASCAR racing for about as long as there have been multi-car teams. Some drivers have gotten with the program better than others. When he was with Petty Enterprises in the early 70s, Buddy Baker never thought much about being told to yield position to his boss in the 43 car and finally quit the outfit. It seems a charming anachronism now in an era when the multi-car teams dominate but Dale Earnhardt the Original never much cared for the idea of RCR adding a second team. He felt the second team would divert attention and resources away from his team. If anything, the Intimidator tended to run teammate Mike Skinner harder than any other car out there on the track, refusing even to let off the gas racing to the caution flag to let Skinner get back on the lead lap. (And it did seem that RCR teammates Austin Dillon and Paul Menard were struggling a bit with the notion of intra-team cooperation Sunday at Martinsville as well.) The most notorious (and tragic) example of team orders in NASCAR occurred back in 1956 when a driver for Carl Kiekhaefer’s team, Speedy Thompson,  was told to wreck Herb Thomas (a former driver for that same team) to help Kiekhaefer’s primary driver, Buck Baker, win the championship. Thomas was comatose when he was cut out of the wreckage of his car and while he survived, that “accident” effectively ended Thomas’s career after 48 wins and two championships. (Thomas was also the runner-up three times in the Cup points standings including 1956 despite missing the last three races due to that wreck.)

Obviously we’d all like to think that sort of horrific sportsmanship will never again decide a title. Back in 1956, NASCAR was still a hole-in-a-corner affair and about the only coverage the on-track mugging received was in newspapers (another charming anachronism) in the Southeast. In today’s electronic age of instant communication that sort of story would explode instantly. Yes, NASCAR had a rulebook even way back in 1956, but they’d gone ahead and cracked all their crayons before they finished writing it. But to a (far smaller) degree, Kenseth’s call to wreck Logano at Martinsville last fall greatly aided his teammate Kyle Busch’s chances at winning the title by eliminating one of his fiercest and most successful rivals from the Chase.

To a point, race fans in today’s NASCAR accept team orders with little more than an occasional shrug or perhaps a theatrical rolling of eyes. One can understand why when two teammates are battling for a position they’ll leave another couple inches and take care not to wreck the car they are overtaking.  Letting a teammate back into line at a place like Martinsville, as happened numerous times throughout the field on Sunday, is an extended courtesy with the driver offering the favor expecting a similar courtesy from that teammate later in the race or the season. There’s really no harm in one team driver pulling up under caution to check if his teammate’s car has a tire going down or to slow a bit to let his teammate use his rear bumper to rid his grille of trash. But under what circumstances would one teammate pull over for another handing a victory to a teammate in need?

Believe it or not the above scenario has happened numerous times in Formula One and sports car racing. In F1, one driver is considered a “primary” driver and the other a “secondary” or backup driver. In many instances the secondary driver has been told to slow down and let his teammate pass to garner more points towards a championship. (Other secondary drivers have complained for years that they’ve been given inferior equipment to keep them from finishing ahead of the team’s primary driver.) As Blue Oval fans celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legendary 1-2-3 finish for the GT40s in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, it’s worth noting team orders changed the outcome of that race. The GT40 driven by Ken Miles and Denny Hulme was leading but they were told to slow down because Ford wanted a three-wide photo finish for promotional purposes. After the checkered flew the win was handed to another GT40 driven by Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon. While the two cars crossed the finish line inches apart with Miles in the lead, the race organizers decided that since the black No. 2 car had started further back in the field it had actually covered a greater distance.

It’s left to be seen to what degree NASCAR and its fans will accept team orders as the status quo. The advent of the Chase opens a Pandora’s Box of unpleasant possibilities. Say, for instance that Jimmie Johnson is leading at Richmond this fall late in the race. Kasey Kahne is running second and for argument’s sake, let’s say that he doesn’t have a win yet and isn’t in the top 16 in points. (Right now Kahne is listed at 18th in the standings.) Could the team order Johnson to slow down and let Kahne by for the win to get the No. 5 car in the Chase? I’d guess NASCAR would frown on that move and it wouldn’t be very popular with the fans. Now on the other hand, if somehow Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the No. 88 team hadn’t yet qualified for the Chase and Johnson yielded, I’m sure NASCAR would be absolutely delighted and the fans would by and large cheer lustily.  And if, at the Homestead season finale, a teammate of a title contender no longer in the Chase himself were to block his teammate’s rival in the pit costing him a bunch of spots or…dare I say it….get into him a little, putting him into the wall….doubtless NASCAR would be very unhappy. There’d be fines and possible suspensions, but I doubt very much they’d alter the outcome of the title fight or penalize the winning driver, who was the accidental and assumedly unaware beneficiary of such a dastardly deed.

Call me old school (and I’ve been called that and worse frequently), but I despise any sign of team orders even to the degree we saw amongst the JGR drivers at Martinsville Sunday. (And I despised it last year when the Penske Duo did the same…this isn’t about drivers and manufacturers, it’s about the sport.) The hard working pit crews and “boys back at the shop” often receive some sort of financial bonus for top 10s, top 5s and most especially wins. That worked out well for members of the No. 18 team on Sunday but not so much for the guys and gals on the No. 20 team.

And then there’s a matter of the fans whose numbers have diminished greatly over the last decade or so though NASCAR, the drivers and the team owners all swear they love us half to death. Some drivers are more popular than others, though most every driver has his or her stalwarts. For a fan who has made the financial and time commitment to attend a race live, they naturally would love to see their driver take home the checkered flag. Realistically that’s a long shot most of the time. There’s 40 drivers out there, with somewhere between 12 and 15 who have a legitimate shot at the win given the right circumstances on a weekly basis. That’s different from going to a stick-and-ball sporting event where your home team has around a fifty percent shot at winning. (Unless of course you’re a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers, but the less said about them the better–hope springs eternal.) Fans of Matt Kenseth were probably at Martinsville hoping to see their driver get some measure of redemption after his actions last fall at Martinsville landed him a two-week suspension. By and large they didn’t show up rooting for any one of the JGR teams to take the win. They wanted to see Kenseth ring the bell and earn himself an all but certain playoff berth. So as I see it, it’s every man (or woman) for himself, and they owe their fans, their sponsors and the guys who pit and build their cars nothing less than their best effort from the drop of the green until the race concludes. If that means offering a few awkward apologies to his teammates in the Monday morning meeting so be it. They hand out “participant” and “good sportsmanship” awards in youth soccer not stock car racing.

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kb

Good Grief…..SMH. Ethics say because one publishes bullshit in a portion of a story, the whole article becomes a lie, merit and fact are disputed. The viewpoint of Martinsville last fall is total bs. Therefore dismissed. I get it, you post your opinion, but that doesn’t make it true.

Hey Frontstretch Guys and Gals…………

How about all the comments you folks seem to say you read? We have been complaining the past couple of months about this and that regarding this site (YOU KNOW, YOUR REGULARS) and from you,
The Experts/Professionals…zip nadda. There is a disconnect and we have asked and pleaded to have you look into it. Nobody in your employ, to fix this obvious problem??????????????????????????????????????????

kb

Good Matt, did you get your horrible customer service reply out of your system?

Now lets get to the basics and the problem from your readers viewpoint!

Great, I can safely assume that my fellow readers of “The Frontstretch” did not have you sitting in a office exclusively working 9-5 for “The Frontstretch”, and the IT guy was sitting in the cubical next to you. But what you and yours are arrogantly ignoring is the quality of customer service YOU COULD ASSIST WITH, as you and your fellow contributors are the PORTAL to “THE FRONSTRETCH”. This cluster fluck of a fully functioning website has been going on for months, and us faithful readers have been commenting for some time. Are you guys that lazy to assist or pass the concerns on to the person that can fix it? I do not believe for a minute that is the case. The laziness yes, the connections seemingly claimed as absent, I say bs. It is a quality issue, a customer service issue. I am sure you and your fellow contributors read the comments, this is nothing that should shock any one of you. Are you and your kind that superior that you cannot at least put out a blanket “I don’t know but I will look into it”? Kinda lame from my experience and where I sit. Just saying Matty!

Old_Timer

LOL!!!!! Good comeback, Matt!!

Bill B

I agree with you Matt.
This would be much less likely to be an issue if they’d have left the lapped cars in one lane on the restarts instead of the current way. So what would you do to stop this from happening?

Fed Up

NA$CAR continues to allow the leader to decelerate in the starting zone making a farce of the start. Busch was
warned Saturday and Sunday, but no penalty. Oh yea, he’s the Homestead Champion.

steve

My solution is to let each driver pick the lane they want to start in. It’s silly that a guy who is running second is in worse position than the guy starting 5th. Let the driver decide if starting in the front row on the outside is better than being the 3rd car on the inside. At worst, it might take one extra lap (at a short track) to get people lined up.

Bill B

Yes,

Cotton

Matt, I agree with everything you wrote except that Kyle somehow did Matt wrong. Matt Kenseth is my favorite driver and has been since Bill Elliott retired. I’m not a big fan of Kyle Busch but Kyle didn’t wrong Matt by starting on the inside on the last restart. I’d be willing to bet that Matt would agree. Kyle could have taken the inside on any of those prior restarts and left Matt to fend for himself on the outside but he didn’t. At the end of the race, Kyle had an obligation to his team and his sponsors to do what it took to win. I’d hope that Matt would have done the same and I think he would have.

More to the point, NASCAR made a rule after the MWR/Richmond fiasco that drivers/teams not giving 100% would be penalized. Has that rule been forgotten? Is it no longer in effect. Quite obviously, as you said, the Penske kids were not giving 100% when they fouled up several restarts at Martinsville last fall which finally resulted in Keslowski ruining Matt’s day and Matt ruining Logano’s year. Had the 100% rule been invoked the first time the Penske kids screwed up a restart, none of the rest of this sorry story would have occurred. It’s a funny thing to me that the 100% rule has never been used, or even mentioned, after all the hullabaloo after Richmond.

Cotton

Old_Timer

Matt, my friend, you know I have agreed with you with 98% of everything you have ever written … 99% of almost every article … and 100% with this one! But … seriously … how do you police it? As you GREATLY pointed out to the kids reading this, “teams orders” are nothing new — not in NASCAR — not in racing in general … … but … if you have an idea of how to logically and fairly enforce some rule(s) against it (team orders) … please let me know!!

I hate team orders in racing … shootouts in hockey and soccer … and the Designated Hitter Rule!! We can get rid of the DH by changing the rules … the shootouts, as much as I hate them, I don’t have a better idea … … but, the team orders … … I am clueless what do about that even if Brian Z. himself called right now and said “Effective tomorrow, YOU are President of NASCAR and you may write the rules as you see fit!”

Cotton

If NASCAR really wanted to do something about “team orders”, it would be easy enough to do. Just make “team orders” against the rules, like the 100% rule. The problem seems to be in enforcing the rules but there really shouldn’t be a problem. We all sit here knowing what’s going on but NASCAR says they can’t prove it. Why do they have to prove it?

The simple and fair way to enforce this kind of rule is to have an umpire, if you will, to make the call. The umpire would have to be a well respected individual, probably a retired driver. Right now I would suggest Kenny Schrader, Ricky Craven, Rusty Wallace, Ray Evernham, there are others. I’d love to suggest Bill Elliott but with Chase driving that might not work. Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Jarrett obviously have other jobs right now.

Indy Car has done this and it seems to work reasonably well for them in spite of their horrendous management problems. While they are at it, blocking should also be banned and policed in the same way.

Cotton

Old_Timer

I am TOTALLY with getting rid of Lucky Dogs and Wave Arounds … … and I always wondered why, for example, the guy in 3rd place couldn’t choose to restart “4th” … the guy in 5th choose “6th,” etc. … … I like your idea of the 2nd place driver choosing to re-start “3rd!” That is novel and logical!

No, we can not “race back to flag” … and no “racing to the checker” … … but, why not this? There would be several lines painted on the track … for instance, going in to every turn … coming out of every turn … halfway down the back stretch, etc. … … and when the caution waves, the “official running order” is how the cars cross the next line they encounter — meaning no eyeball judgement call of Brian Scott was three inches ahead of Josh Wise for the lead going into Turn 2 at Talladega the instant the Caution was displayed at Start/Finish.

Your idea of the “fresh tires” gets the less-preferred groove … good plan … … but, wouldn’t eliminating Wave Arounds essentially bring us to this — when used in combination with your “restart order” idea?

Question for Cotton … exactly how is Indy Car policing the “team orders?” Formula One has tried for years … technically, is “illegal” … but, near impossible to enforce … … but, what about the new Formula One “radio transmission rules” where they have legislated what can and cannot be said in conversation between crew and driver?

A question for ANY-one … why do we have this “acceleration zone” or whatever they call it? Why can’t RE-starts be just like THE start … no one goes until you get to the Start/Finish line (and the leader/pole starter, barring trouble, can’t be beat to the line)?

Cotton

Old_Timer, so far as I know, Indy Car doesn’t have a rule against “team orders”. They have used an “umpire” primarily to enforce rules against rough driving and blocking. I’m just saying that an “umpire” could be used to enforce a rule against “team orders” if it existed.

Cotton

janice

Matt – smh =smack my head?

Bill B

smh = sorry mother hacker

kb

A suggestion Matty. Your story of ignorance sounds like you leave your written piece in the hollow of a tree on a winding twisting road far into the woods that the Keebler Elf’s cannot get to, because they don’t own a big fat SUV or ORV. Total cloak and dagger stuff. Maybe, just maybe from you and your fellow contributors in your clandestine meetings with this mysterious website owner (sarcasm) you can steer them to read the “Contact US” email now and then…or the comments of their readers. The fix surely would have happened by now! Just a suggestion!

raceaddict

Does anyone have a clue what this meathead (KB) is talking about? Customer service? What exactly do you purchase here?

kb

Sorry meathead you don’t understand, seems like it is rampant in America. Land of the fluoridated water..dead brain matter, lazy and entitled, and stooopid. NOT MY PROBLEM! If you “addict” were in a clinic and just got out, you would understand commenters and readers of this website (NOT JUST ME) were begging the posters of articles including the supposed webmasters to address some issues with this website and the reader have been experiencing. Obviously these fine citizens, writing these articles are looking at the feedback from the readers, hence the “colorful” bs replies they provide. Of course deflecting any knowledge of who or what runs they website. Kinda lame don’t you think? Apparently not, not surprising. One would think a contributor would notice a comment (many comments) that there is a problem…You would think they would ” look into it”. Yup. pass the buck, advertisers paid or whatever reason.. Fluck it. And meathead? How about taking care of your readers (customer service)? I have seen by force at older relatives house reruns on TVLAND of ALL IN THE FAMILY. Yikes…Archie is that you?

raceaddict

Readers have a choice in which websites they frequent. Sometimes it would be nice if websites had a choice of which readers frequented them…

kb

Oh and one another thing MEATHEAD. User readers and commenters want to support these individual endeavors IE WEBSITES. Many a good one has folded up their tents and left the NASCAR CIRCUS never to type or post an article again. So if a website owner or contributor after enough people voiced their concern, received crickets about their acknowledgement of a problem, then one is not out of their mind to question THEIR commitment. AH DUH!!!!!!!!!

raceaddict

Perhaps your concerns aren’t valid or would not improve the quality of the “product”.

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