So, team orders made the NASCAR news this week in a very big way. It’s very likely that this concept is actually nothing new and has been utilized on occasions for quite a few years. It’s also very likely that advances in modern day electronic communications were the catalyst that turned these team orders into a large blip on the racing radar during the NASCAR weekend at Talladega. Between the fans listening in on the team’s radio frequencies, comments made on live television and observations made on the various levels of the social networks the word quickly got out that team orders had been put into play.
[media-credit name=”CIA Stock Photo” align=”alignright” width=”248″][/media-credit]The team orders debacle began on the Friday afternoon prior to the race when it was learned that established plans between Ford driver David Gilliland and Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart, to work together in the two car draft, had been cancelled. That was a little surprising because these two drivers had worked so well together during previous restrictor plate racing events. It was later alleged that Gilliland’s #34 Front Row Motorsports team had been told by someone, never identified, to “try and work with other Ford teams instead.” “We were not banned,” Gilliland said adding “but when you lay out the initial plans, you’ve got to think of the big picture. Ford does a lot for us and we’d really like to see a Ford win this championship.”
We all saw what happened after the final restart of the race, with only two laps remaining. The Ford of Trevor Bayne was lined up behind the Chevrolet of Jeff Gordon. Radio communication between the two drivers established plans to draft together during the race’s final shootout. Nearby in the line up was the tandem of Roush Fenway Ford drivers Matt Kenseth and David Ragan.
When the green flag fell, Ragan fell back in the field due to a reported engine problem. All of a sudden Bayne abandoned Chase contender Gordon to tag team with the Chase contending, Ford driving, Kenseth. In a surprised state of abandonment, Gordon’s car went backwards to a 27th place finish and 82 points out of first.
Gordon had every reason in the world to be angry after the race, but somehow managed to retain a sense of diplomacy during post event interviews. “I think everybody knew coming into the weekend, the Fords made it very clear about what they were doing in working with one another, helping one another out and all those things. So, I didn’t expect him to commit to me on the radio. I expected him to say, man I’m sorry, I can’t. When he said yeah, I’m pushing you; we’re good, I believed him. But I think they had a different plan,” Gordon said.
The issue over team orders hit full strength when the social network entered the picture via “Twitter.” Surprisingly the tweets came from Trevor Bayne himself. In two, high profile, published “Tweets” Bayne wrote: “I’m not happy about what this has become, it’s too premeditated. We should be able to go with whoever is around. I would rather pulled over and finished last rather than tell (Gordon) I would work with him and then be strong armed into bailing.”
Enter the spin doctors. The Tuesday following the race, team owner Jack Roush issued a prepared statement regarding the use of team orders. “At Roush Fenway Racing we expect our individual drivers to make decisions that puts themselves in the best position to win each and every race. That is a philosophy that we have lived by for over two decades, and one that we will continue to abide by going forward.”
“Of course, as in any team, we would prefer our drivers to work together when possible. However, to be clear, we did not micromanage or dictate to any of our drivers, nor any other Ford drivers, how to race at Talladega last Sunday. There are unique codes that all drivers establish and have to live by on the track. How they manage their code is up to our drivers as individuals. This weekend, there were no team orders, from myself or anyone at Roush Fenway, given to any of our drivers as to whom they could or could not choose to run with or assist, nor did I give similar directions or suggestion to any of the other Ford drivers,” the statement said.
Regarding post race comments by Trevor Bayne, the team owner said “I’ve spoken with Trevor and understand that he was put in a situation requiring a split second decision on the track and in his response to questions justifying his actions afterwards, where it was almost certain that not everyone was going to be satisfied. Trevor is extremely talented, but is still very early in his career. Over time he will grow to understand that in such a high paced, competitive and hostile environment it is unlikely that all of his decisions will make everyone happy. I’m confident in his decision making, his ability and actions on the track, and I’m excited as we continue to move forward with his development,” Roush said.
While Trevor Bayne is a full time employee of Roush Fenway Racing, and their NASCAR Nationwide Series program, he’s also driving a part time schedule in the Sprint Cup series in a Ford belonging to Wood Brothers Racing who has a technical alliance with Roush Fenway.
Eddie Wood had no problem with the way the race ended and said “our relationship with Ford Motor Company goes deeper than anyone had or will have. We had to do what we did to help (Ford) win the championship, and I feel like we did the right thing. I’m good with that.”
Jeff Gordon wasn’t the only NASCAR Sprint Cup driver who felt like he had been victimized by alleged team orders. While participating in an October 25th fan meet and greet, at the Charlotte-North Carolina based NASCAR Hall Of Fame, Tony Stewart was asked about his thoughts on team orders. In typically candid fashion he replied “I’ve never seen more politics in a race go on in my life than what I saw last weekend. I think the car owners are to blame, the manufacturers are to blame and the fans don’t deserve that.”
That candid opinion also stemmed from the final two lap shootout of the Talladega race. The Chevrolet driving Stewart had made arrangements to tandem race with Paul Menard’s Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. However, with Menard doing the pushing, the tandem didn’t really take off in the charge to the front Stewart was hoping for.
After the race Stewart claimed that someone from Childress Racing told Menard he could work with him as long as he didn’t push Stewart past the Childress cars of Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton who ultimately finished one-two in the race. Stewart further alleged that someone, (never identified), was in his trailer monitoring a race scanner and heard a decision to switch to a different radio channel that couldn’t be monitored. It’s believed that’s when Menard was given instructions not to push Stewart past his RCR team mates. Stewart went on to say, afterwards, that he was “disappointed in RCR.”
That allegation prompted yet another post race statement from another team owner. This time it was Richard Childress who said “I went on Paul’s radio and told him to go up there and push Tony and try to win the race. I wanted him to win the race but I also wanted him to push Tony. That’s the way it was.”
There were a lot of social media comments on the issue of team orders. Some of the better ones came from NASCAR racing champion/Fox Sports racing analyst Darrell Waltrip and NASCAR Nationwide Series driver/Speed Channel racing analyst Kenny Wallace.
In a trio of comments on “Twitter”, Waltrip wrote “can you imagine if Jeff Gordon was told to help Jimmie Johnson and he said I can’t, got to help the guy in the Ford?”
In a second “Twitter”, Waltrip wrote: “what if Jeff Gordon bailed on Trevor Bayne? Everybody would be saying the kid should have known better, right?”
In a final “Tweet” Waltrip made this observation: “when I drove we worked together until 5 (laps) to go and then it was every man for himself, it was understood you try to help your brethren.”
The always delightful, and candid, Kenny Wallace had several comments on this topic and began with: “this is FUN to see y’all fired up over Trevor N Jeff, I will explain it more! FORD has Matt (Kenseth) and Carl (Edwards) trying to win the championship.”
Referencing the in car communication between Jeff Gordon and Trevor Bayne prior to the final restart, Wallace said “they did not tell Jeff Gordon the truth because they wanted to WIN !”
When asked if misleading another driver was typical, Wallace “tweeted” “yes it’s very common to lie and cheat in NASCAR and ALL sports do the same. NASCAR is not child’s play It costs 20 million per team.”
In yet another “tweet” Wallace reminded the fans of who sometimes pulls the strings and wrote: “every FORD motor in a NASCAR race car is supplied by Roush ! If you don’t do what Roush says you will not get motors. Everyone knows that.”
Are team orders really a big part of motorsports operations? Probably. We’ve certainly seen enough evidence of it in Formula One racing. Is there anything wrong with the concept of team orders? Not really. They could turn out to be the difference between a race win or loss and could even lead to winning a championship.
Racing is about performance levels and achieving the highest levels from the driver and the car. In turn, a high team performance level could translate into signing a high profile sponsorship deal worth mega millions of dollars. It’s those sponsorship packages that makes the wheels roll. If a racing scenario develops that might require team orders, can anyone blame a team for using them? I can’t.