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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: NASCAR Team Orders Creeping Into 2021

Did You Notice? … The way in which teammates helped each other out at Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend (March 20-21)? The most obvious example came in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, where Kyle Busch twice slowed down in the final laps of a stage to let John Hunter Nemechek pass by and win.

In both cases, Busch dominated each stage until “suddenly” slowing in the last two laps of each one. Nemechek wound up leading just 21 laps but collecting 54 total points while Busch tacked up 102 laps led and earned a 4.1-second win in the race itself.

The reason for those team orders was simple: two playoff points. Busch doesn’t need them as a moonlighting NASCAR Cup Series driver; for Nemechek, it could make the difference in a Championship 4 bid. As the owner of Kyle Busch Motorsports, the money for winning the title makes it a no-brainer unless NASCAR officials step in.

Thus far, NASCAR apparently has no problem with the incident; neither Busch nor Nemechek were penalized. Perhaps they feel a teammate slowing is a harder case to prove than someone like Clint Bowyer spinning intentionally, giving teammate Martin Truex Jr. his chance to make the Chase in 2013?

Some might say a single race in the regular season has nowhere near the impact. But what if a single-car team falls two points short of the Championship 4? Should they be forced to invest double the money next year for a teammate fast enough to pull over for them?

Busch’s example wasn’t the only one within multi-car teams playing politics; it was just the most obvious. Kyle Larson cut Chase Elliott a break, slowing at the end of a Cup Series stage to ensure the No. 9 stayed on the lead lap. Later on in the race, it was Larson getting the short end of the stick as Joey Logano fought furiously to stay on the lead lap in front of him. In the process, Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney ran Larson down from behind, then passed him for the victory.

Would Blaney have won the race either way? Larson seems to think so, as our Bryan Gable wrote on Frontstretch Monday. But the No. 22 Ford putting Larson, the leader, in dirty air for laps at a time sure didn’t help.

There’s no question NASCAR views itself differently than Formula One, a series where there’s a clear pecking order within two-car teams. Yet the infamous Bowyer Spingate incident, nearly eight years old, is the last time they’ve stepped in to discourage that type of playoff cooperation.

At the back of the grid, the sport has stepped in after backmarkers tried to manipulate the race in the 2019 Homestead-Miami Speedway finale (Hat tip: Daniel McFadin). The incident was a plot among a group of teams in order to win a season-long bonus for best non-chartered car.

But up front has been a different story altogether as people push into the gray area without any consequences. It’s Racing Human Nature 101, similar to how crew chiefs push the issue in pre- and post-race inspection.

So where’s the line? Is it Stewart-Haas Racing running 1-2-3-4, single-file at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2018 for laps on end? How about Erik Jones hanging back from then-Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin at Martinsville Speedway last November? Jones appeared to have a faster car but with a Championship 4 bid on the line, that took precedence.

At the end of the day, fans and other competitors have a say in what’s acceptable and what is not. If people choose not to watch or showcase their dissatisfaction with these moves, NASCAR might step in.

But for now? Team orders appear to be on the rise in what’s marketed as an individual sport.

Did You Notice? … Roger Penske made clear he’s looking to extend Brad Keselowski’s contract?

“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” he said in a Ford media call this week. “There’s no reason we wouldn’t renew for sure.”

That puts the onus on the 36-year-old veteran, who started the season wrecking with teammate Logano in the final lap of February’s Daytona 500. The two have reportedly mended fences, and Keselowski has bounced back since, earning three top-five finishes in the past five races while rising to fifth in the standings.

He remains the linchpin in how crazy 2022 Silly Season will become. Top-tier rides at both Chevrolet’s top team (Hendrick Motorsports) and Toyota’s top team (Joe Gibbs Racing) look secure, also a reason Keselowski could stick around.

A potential retirement by Kurt Busch may open up a spot at Chip Ganassi Racing while Aric Almirola could be in trouble at struggling Stewart-Haas Racing. SHR would be a good fit within the Ford family if Keselowski chose to leave.

But it’s clear the 2012 Cup Series champ is the big name, and potentially the only major one, dangling out there. If he stays put, Silly Season craziness may hinge on whether new teams like 23XI Racing, Trackhouse Racing and others choose to expand for 2022.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….

  • Mike Massie’s Frontstretch story on Timmy Hill missing tomorrow’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race is a must read. A winner during the COVID-19 pandemic iRacing series last year, defeating heavyweight William Byron, doesn’t even get invited? And now it’s costing them (supposedly) sponsorship and causing them to skip Cup Series races? Owner Carl Long always seems to be on the short end of the stick despite years of consistent dedication to this sport as an underdog. Count me on the #LetTimmyRace bandwagon.
  • My growing fear about the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race: ballooning expectations. FOX, NASCAR and the drivers themselves have been pumping this weekend up for months. Watching those commercials, you’d think the sport never raced on dirt before and it’s the most important race of all time. But what if we go no more than five laps without a caution? What if a large portion of the Cup field, with limited-to-no dirt experience, goes and drives like it? Simply going out and establishing a baseline on this track surface is no longer enough.
  • There were only six speeding penalties at Atlanta during the 500-mile Cup race Sunday. That’s nearly half what we saw at Phoenix Raceway during a 500-kilometer race the week before. Back to normal? Or did officials back off?
  • Kudos to NASCAR working with the White House in helping convince people of all political persuasions to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Lucky enough to get my second shot on Thursday (March 25) and doing my part to publicize that it’s all gone great. So please consider signing up if you’re on the fence. The quicker we as a country achieve herd immunity, the faster COVID-19 recedes into the rear-view mirror and we can all start trudging back toward normalcy.

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17 thoughts on “Did You Notice?: NASCAR Team Orders Creeping Into 2021”

  1. I thought Kyle Busch’s actions in the truck race were blatant enough that NASCAR should have done something (especially since he is a guest in the series). As for Larson letting up so Elliott would stay on the lead lap, he probably did but it wasn’t blatant and therefore would create a very slippery slope that NASCAR would be better off not getting into.

    • Hey Bill, Ill look at it a different way.

      If Kyle wasn’t in that race then Nemechek wins those stages anyways (all things equal). I am sure NASCAR will revisit the rule book to avoid things like this happening more often in the future though, if not, more teams will expose it.

      As for letting guys back on the lead lap, I would say who cares. That has been something that drivers have done for a long time, teammates or not. Especially when they use to have to race back to the line.

      Easiest way to get rid of the above 2 problems would be to get rid of stages! 😎

      • Want to bet stages don’t go away? Anyway, in the old days, when drivers raced back to the caution, there was still manipulation going on.

      • I really don’t care about the points or the players just the optics. All he had to do was ride in 2nd the entire time in the first two stages and then rise to the front in the final stage. Everyone would have still had the same suspicions but it isn’t blatantly flaunting the fact that you are doing it. I’ll put it another way. You may drive by a cop going 15mph over the speed limit and hope he doesn’t but you’d be stupid to flip him the bird while you are doing it.
        All we are talking about here is being smart when you are doing something that would land you in trouble if you admitted you were doing it.

        • I always wanted finishing positions of the Cup drivers not to count in the segment scoring. Kyle would win and not get any points. Nemechek would finish second and get 10 first place points as the highest finishing series driver. And so on for the other finishing positions.

  2. Regarding the truck race, not all things were equal.

    Stage winner (JHN) received 10 bonus point. Kyle Busch finished 2nd and received zero bonus points. The3rd place truck received 8 bonus points. That’s some of the rub. I think another non-eligible truck finished in the top 10 of stage 1, which denied a series regular driver a bonus point. Why not bump up the 3rd place truck to 9 bonus points and the other regular series driver affected by the non-points eligible drivers? Might keep a certain team owner from manipulating the outcome of a sanctioned NASCAR race.

    • You think Kyle Busch is the only one who manipulates races for team cars? He’s footing the bill for his development drivers, so let him do whatever he deems necessary.

      Dale Sr. died trying to block so that one the cars he owned would win the Daytona 500. Funny how everybody reveres him for that, but condemns Busch for similar tactics.

      • Good Point. Well said.
        Also reminds me that Seniors 500 victory was under a yellow flag, just in time, always not mentioned.

  3. In 1997, Jeff Gordon had a problem early and went a lap down. Mark Martin was leading when the caution came out. Martin let Gordon have his lap back which was probably the dumbest move of Martin’s career. Of course, Gordon went on to win the race and Martin never won the 500. (They weren’t even teammates, but Martin was trying to be a “good sport.”)

    In 1992 at Richmond, Bill Elliott led most of the race. His teammate Sterling Marlin was a lap down with a car that was about equal to Elliott’s in speed, but Elliott raced him hard to prevent him getting back on the lead lap. Marlin was furious with Elliott and did everything he could to prevent Bill from winning the Championship that year

    None of this is new under the current setup and needs no interference from NASCAR. I have always hated the concept of “team orders,” but when you have these teammates in a non-team sport, these things will always happen.

    Just move on. Nothing to see here.

    • Deflection to instances of what was once called a “gentlemans agreement” among drivers. It has nothing to do with what we’re discussing. NASCAR did away with racing back to the start/finish line after a caution was thrown. End of story.

      What Kyle spends has nothing to do with manipulating races in a series he shouldn’t be running in as a driver and a multi-team owner. Conflict of interest comes to mind. Speaking of money, I wonder if this is exactly why NASCAR allows such shenanigans?

      • Furthermore, I agree with DoninAjax that the solution is to ignore the non-eligible drivers in awarding points. Then Nemechek would get the 10 Stage points for being first eligible driver. Also please read my comment regarding Dale Sr’s. “shenanigans” in the 2001 Daytona 500 to attempt to get the team he owned a victory. You may recall that more was lost that day than a couple points. But I guess you figure everything that happened in the “good old days” was completely innocent or even admirable.

    • Please site examples of how Sterling kept Bill from winning the 1992 championship. From what I remember from the Richmond race, Bill raced Sterling and kept him from getting the lap back. Mike Beam was not happy about it and TV interviewed Jr Johnson, who said his teams had no team orders (while he was sitting in Elliott’s pit wearing his Budweiser cap). Later in the race, instead of blocking for Elliott, Sterling pulled over and let Alan Kulwicki pass him so he could try to catch him, but Alan ended up 2nd in the race.

      The only thing that kept Bill from winning the championship was that Paul Andrews and Alan outsmarted Junior and Tim Brewer by staying out at Atlanta to lead the most laps and get the bonus. If Jr and Brewer would have had enough brains to figure that out, Bill would have been the 1992 champion.

      • There were plenty of instances of Sterling trying to block Bill especially at later races in Dega and Daytona. Johnson eventually had to call Marlin off and fired him at season’s end. The reason Elliott lost the championship was that Brewer and Johnson were feuding over Brewer’s interference in Junior’s extramarital affair and the feud became painfully apparent at Dover in September of that year and continued through Bill’s mechanical failures through the rest of the season. Johnson also fired Brewer at season’s end.

    • These are mostly examples of Cup drivers amongst their own – not really comparable to a Cup driver messing about in the minor leagues as an owner/driver. But really the main difference is that for the most part, fan or not most people liked all the guys you mentioned (perhaps Sterling as the exception). In Kyle’s case, only his fans like him.

  4. A slippery slope is an understatement. Team orders equate to fixing the outcome of a race.. simple as that. In any other sport you get banned for this but not NASCAR. And now that betting on races is part of the game it makes matters worse.
    A few years back Brian France said drivers not giving 100% would be penalized. That rule was never enforced.

    NASCAR makes judgement calls all of the time. They can do the same in these situations.

    • This is why you have teammates, to help out. Especially if you’re the owner. I see nothing wrong with this.

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