Dale Earnhardt didn’t have to look hard or wait long to apologize for knocking Jeff Gordon out of Sunday’s race at the Bristol Motor Speedway.
The opportunity came the next day during their team meeting at Hendrick Motorsports.
Earnhardt accepted responsibility for bumping Gordon. The impact cut Gordon’s left-rear tire and sent him caroming into the third turn wall. Gordon probably accepted the explanation, although the memories usually linger.
“I’ll just have to sit down and talk to him and see where he’s at,” Earnhardt said after the race. “I’ve got to own up to my responsibility in the situation, which I will, and go from there.”
With so many multi-car operations, accidents among teammates are bound to happen. A week earlier at Las Vegas, Carl Edwards knocked Matt Kenseth into the wall. During the Nationwide Series race at the Daytona International Speedway, Cole Whitt sent his teammate, Danica Patrick, head-first into the inside wall.
While some rivalries have lingered for years, bad feelings among teammates are tougher to forget because you don’t expect trouble from a partner, Jeff Burton said.
“I certainly think that you have to be more careful with your teammates than you do with anybody else,” he said. “Although, I do believe that you drive everybody the way that you would expect to be driven, it’s easier to make a teammate mad than it is somebody else. When it happens with a teammate, you expect more and it’s easier to get your feelings hurt.
“Teammates get mad at each other more often than your competition does because I think the expectation is that they’re going to cut you some more slack, and when they don’t, it makes you mad.”
Car owner Rick Hendrick knows both ends of the spectrum of owning four teams. In 1997 Hendrick finished one-two-three at the Daytona 500 with Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven. But the 2010 problems between Gordon and Jimmie Johnson attracted even more attention.
Those two ran into each other several times in a two-month period. Gordon sent Johnson spinning through the infield grass at the Texas Motor Speedway, and in the process he was heard on his team’s two-way radio saying: “Four-time (champion) is a little upset. He [expects] to be treated different than everybody else.”
When they ran into each other at Talladega, Ala., Gordon offered a warning: “He’s on my last nerve.”
Racing against a teammate is never easy, especially when both are the alpha dog within their own organization. Gordon has four championships; Johnson has five. Neither will back down to the other.
“You don’t have teammates and friends out there and [you] race hard,” Gordon said. “It’s definitely affected our friendship, there’s no doubt about it.”
“With the teammate situation, it’s so much fun to watch it take place, and to hear what goes on. But when you're living it, it [stinks],” Johnson said. “I guess it shows that it doesn’t matter what organization you drive for or who the teammates are, you’re seeing what we want week in and week out. We want to win races.”
It’s up to the car owner to get the most from their drivers, even if it means pitting one against the other. Teams can celebrate – and fight – on Sunday, but work things out during their Monday meetings.
“It’s a good problem to have for our team," Denny Hamlin said. “For two guys to be wanting to go for the win like they are, it’s all you can ask for.”
Hamlin has had a couple run-ins with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch. Their problems in 2010 eventually required the car owner to step in.
“Do we need to have a meeting beforehand and say, ‘OK, we don’t share the same jerseys today, is it every man for himself?’” Hamlin said.
Most drivers don’t need to be reminded challenges on the race track come from different directions, including a teammate. But as long as a car owner brings home a trophy, he will let everyone else work things out on Monday.