Martinsville Speedway is one of those tracks where someone inevitably ends the day angry at someone else. It’s the nature of short-track racing, where racing is tight and battles for position are fierce.
Last weekend’s race was no exception. Frustration ran high as Jimmie Johnson ran away from the field in the closing laps, and by the end of the day, three drivers were at odds over who was faster at the end of the day and who raced too hard as the laps wound down. Harsh words were bandied about in the garage afterward, though nobody went so far as starting anything more on of off the track. Which is a good thing, because their car owner might not have approved.
The drivers most at odds Sunday were teammates.
The three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers still in contention after Carl Edwards crashed late in the race were after every position they could come by, and with the title on the line, that’s exactly what they should have done.
Kyle Busch didn’t seem to think so; he told Gibbs afterward about his “great (expletive) teammates” and implied that Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin had cost him the race by racing him for position at the end.
With so many multi-team organizations in the garage these days, teammates racing each other for wins and championships is commonplace. And while there are times one driver can help a teammate during the race, at a certain point, it’s every man for himself; Busch was one driver who’s said that in the past, despite his feelings otherwise Sunday.
But how far is too far? What kind of teamwork is acceptable, and what’s over the top? NASCAR drew a line in the sand at Richmond in 2014 after Clint Bowyer spun to bring out a timely caution for his Michael Waltrip Racing stablemate Martin Truex, Jr., while Brian Vickers, in a third team car, had a “flat tire” that he didn’t even know about and was told to pit from the lead lap, guaranteeing that he’d finish behind Truex. The story’s been rehashed a thousand times, and what the team orchestrated was, at the very least, a display of terrible sportsmanship, and at worst, overt cheating.
So what is acceptable, then?
What’s all right for a teammate to do? Letting a team car lead a lap or two for a bonus point and then swapping the lead back may make the race look more competitive in the box score, but it doesn’t hurt anything. The chance drivers take is that their teammate won’t give the lead back, but it’s not a dirty move. Same goes for letting a teammate by in order to get behind them to get debris off the grille. Harmless.
I’m also not against a driver about to go a lap down racing the leader extra hard to help a teammate racing to the front get there, as long as they’re’ racing clean. After all, it’s advantageous to that driver to stay on the lead lap and they’re totally within their rights to try and hold off the leader as long as they can.
Throw drafting help here as well, that’s a given.
Sort of OK, but expect payback
It’s not quite as squeaky clean if the lapped cars are holding up other lead lap cars after the leader has gone by, but again, as long as the driving is clean, it’s not the end of the world. But don’t expect any breaks in the future, either, because what goes around comes around. It may not be super dirty, but sometimes it’s better to take the high road, because you never know when you might need the same courtesy, and drivers tend to have long memories.
Not a payback situation so much, because it doesn’t involve holding up anyone on other teams, but add trying setups solely for a teammate to this list as well. It’s OK in terms of the big picture when a team has one teammate or a satellite team not in the playoffs or in playoff contention try out some setups for the Chase driver in the shop. If it helps across the board, then everyone wins, but if it tanks, the line between manipulating races blurs a little and there are going to be hard feelings from the guy who has become the team guinea pig.
Not OK. Ever. Really.
What’s not OK on any level is what Busch was essentially asking his teammates to do Sunday: lay over and give up a finishing position to benefit a teammate. It happens, yes, but it’s cheating. It may not violate a rule (except perhaps the vague “100 percent rule” NASCAR implemented in the wake of the aforementioned MWR mess), but it’s definitely cheating the sponsors and fans of the driver who gave up the spot. It’s not going to lead to the warm fuzzies back at the shop, either. Same car owner or not, each driver’s job is to get their sponsors and fans the best finish possible, and if that means leaving a teammate to watch their rear bumper heading to the checkered flag, so be it.
It should go without saying, but wrecking another driver to help a teammate win a race or advance in the Chase is as low as it gets. NASCAR dropped the hammer on Kenseth last year after he intentionally wrecked Joey Logano at Martinsville, and that was absolutely the correct thing to do as Kenseth’s revenge potentially put his own teammates in better position to win the title once heavy favorite Logano was out of the running. Wrecking people is always a dirty move, and wrecking people to help your teammate win as about as classless as it gets.
It would be pretty hard to put every possible teammate situation on a list without taking 100 pages, and it should be noted that every situation is different, but teamwork in NASCAR is part of the game, and while it has its perks that are perfectly acceptable, it can quickly turn into something else entirely.
And at the end of the day, it’s every driver for themselves, and anything else is letting the fans down.
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