Greg Biffle made a difficult decision to win a race instead of helping a teammate during the late stages of the June 16 race at the Michigan International Speedway, and that revived an age-old argument of team orders in NASCAR.
When Biffle sped away to a 250-yard victory to provide Ford its milestone 1,000th NASCAR victory, Carl Edwards was upset Biffle didn’t work with him to get trash off his front grille.
“He ain’t our teammate,” Edwards yelled over his team radio to crew chief Jimmy Fennig.
Biffle had a 25-car-length lead when a piece of paper clogged Edwards’ grille. The only way to remove it was to get directly behind another car to create a whirlwind that could blow it off or to make a pit stop.
Edwards eventually had to make an unscheduled pit stop. Although he battled back for an eighth-place finish, he said Biffle’s primary job was to help him.
Car owner Jack Roush, who bluntly said there are no team orders in his organization, sat everyone down a day later to make sure his drivers understand exactly what he expects of them.
As far as Biffle was concerned, he did the right thing at Michigan. Edwards believes he was right.
“I mean, you’ve got to put into context let’s help each other,” Biffle said. “If this situation rises again and I’m a third of a straightaway out in front, I’m not going to back up a third of a straightaway lead to help get paper off his grille. If it’s six-car lengths or five, no problem. We all understand that. But you can’t ask another competitor to give up a quarter or half, third of a straightaway lead. It’s just not practical; it’s not feasible.
“We want to work together at all costs, but we have to be reasonable about what we’re asking one another to do.”
That’s not always the case. While the some marching orders are more prominent that others, team orders have always been part of racing.
Drivers have given up spots in the running order to help a teammate earn more points. There have been mysterious spins and mechanical failures to bring out cautions that help another teammate.
“If there comes a time when we are out of the championship, we will consider that,” Jeff Gordon said.
Two years ago car owner Richard Childress told his drivers to switch to a digital radio channel that can’t be monitored. Moments later, Kevin Harvick easily passed Bowyer at the Kansas Speedway.
Both drove for Childress. Bowyer wasn’t in the Chase for the Championship; Harvick was in the playoffs. By moving up a spot, Harvick gained another point in the standings.
Earlier in the season Gordon led at Richmond, Va., when Childress driver Paul Menard spun in the fourth turn to bring out a caution. That allowed Harvick to erase the deficit, and he eventually beat Gordon after the re-start for the win.
“You’re going to race hard for your company,” Childress said.
Childress eventually issued a written statement, saying there are no team orders “despite all the speculation in the media.”
Gordon and Jimmie Johnson had several run-ins in 2010. Despite being teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, neither seemed willing to concede any advantage to the other.
Team orders in Formula One have created huge controversies. In 2011 Mark Webber was told not to pass Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel at the British Grand Prix. Vettel went on to win the F1 championship.
“In Formula One, the best team gets ordered to move over and let the second-best car pass,” Kenny Wallace said. “And I don’t know about you, but if my car owner told me to pull over for my teammate, I think I’d find another car owner.”
Edwards and Biffle said they now have a better understanding of what’s expected. At the same time, it probably won’t change their belief in how far they should go to help a teammate.
“We can be a lot better working together and trying to understand each other more often,” Edwards said. “I feel like I’ve got two of the best drivers [including Ricky Stenhouse Jr.] in the garage as teammates. Over the years I’ve learned no man is an island. I’ve not always been the best teammate. As frustrating as [the race at Michigan] was, I think we may be even stronger.”
Until the next time.