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.
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.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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