Commentary

Teammates not getting along nothing new in NASCAR's world

If you think the occasional bubbling feud is new in NASCAR, a quick look back shows bad blood among teammates is a rich tradition, writes Ryan McGee.

Originally Published: September 27, 2007
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

For all you NASCAR newbies, the folks who just started watching racing when all these pretty young boys showed up over the past few seasons, we here at the Worldwide Leader want you to know that we are here for you.

Lesson 1: It's important that you understand two things: 1. Despite what you might have heard, stock car racing actually existed before Jeff Gordon and Dale Junior. 2. Anything you see happen in the sport these days already has happened before.

Or, as Bill Shakespeare once put it, what is past is prologue.

For example, this season's biggest stirs not involving the number 88 or evil stepmothers were caused by tumultuous teammates. Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart wrecking each other out of the lead at Daytona in July (they later made up). Kyle Busch claiming he had been left out of team meetings at Hendrick (he later said it wasn't true). And, of course, the sudden bunkhouse stampede at Roush Fenway Racing, which started with a televised fake punch-out by Carl Edwards and eventually escalated into The Carl versus Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and even the normally genteel Jamie McMurray.

But these squabbles pale in comparison to NASCAR's versions of Shaq versus Kobe, Donovan versus T.O., and Rosie versus Elisabeth, locker-room feuds between supposed teammates that fractured friendships, divided crews and wrecked racecars.

5. Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte, Hendrick Motorsports, 1994-2006

For all the talk about Dale Earnhardt versus Jeff Gordon being the 1990s' penultimate clash between old-school NASCAR and the New Breed, the real line in the sand that separated the eras was drawn through the middle of the sprawling compound at Hendrick Motorsports.

When Terry Labonte joined Hendrick in '94, he already was a 15-year NASCAR veteran with two kids and a Winston Cup trophy. Gordon was in his second season, had not yet turned 23 and was more famous for wrecking cars than he was for winning in them. In 1995, Gordon won his first Cup, Labonte finishing sixth in points. The following year, the rivalry between the two took root as they battled for the Cup title all the way into the final weekend of the season.

What It Takes To Win The Chase

With three races left in the 2007 Chase for the Nextel Cup, all 12 drivers still are alive, although the status of each ranges from thriving to critical.

Jeff Gordon has a nine-point lead over teammate and defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Johnson could win this year's championship without winning even one of the final three races.

The following scenarios take into account how each driver could overtake Gordon in the final three races and, unless otherwise specified, include those drivers winning each race and leading the most laps.

Chase Chances
1) Jeff Gordon Chase leader
2) Jimmie Johnson
(-9 points)
Could take lead by finishing as few as two spots ahead of Gordon or by winning a race
3) Clint Bowyer
(-111)
Needs Gordon to average a sixth-place finish or worse
4) Carl Edwards
(-261)
Needs Gordon to average a 20th-place finish or worse
5) Tony Stewart
(-322)
Needs Gordon to average a 27th-place finish or worse
6) Kyle Busch
(-328)
Needs Gordon to average a 28th-place finish or worse
7) Kevin Harvick
(-392)
Needs Gordon to average a 35th-place finish or worse
8) Jeff Burton
(-400)
Needs Gordon to average a 36th-place finish or worse
9) Kurt Busch
(-419)
Needs Gordon to average a 38th-place finish or worse
10) Denny Hamlin
(-424)
Needs Gordon to average a 39th-place finish or worse
11) Matt Kenseth
(-448)
Needs Gordon to average a 41st-place finish or worse
12) Martin Truex Jr.
(-513)
Needs Gordon to not start one race and to finish 43rd without leading a lap in the other two

The drivers never were best of friends, but the two class acts also never were publicly critical of each other. The real venom existed between the two teams. As Ray Evernham instilled his cutting-edge ideas -- such as hiring teams of engineers and bringing in athletic trainers to coach his Rainbow Warriors pit crew -- the old-school mechanics working on Labonte's No. 5 Chevy, specifically crew chief Gary DeHart, openly suggested that Evernham might be nuts.

The resulting wedge that was jammed between the two teams didn't prevent either team from reaching success in the short run, but the No. 5 car soon fell behind because of its reluctance to buy into the new way of thinking. When the No. 48 team was formed in 2001, the Kellogg's car went from second to third on the Hendrick totem pole, where it still sits today.

4. Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman, Penske Racing South, 2001-05
Rusty Wallace never has been one to enjoy being told how to do something, so when team owner Roger Penske added a second car to his Cup portfolio in 1998, the '89 Cup champ was none too pleased with the idea of sharing his stuff.

His first teammate was Jeremy Mayfield, and the pair got along at first, then grew apart (see Dishonorable Mentions below). That division set up a nearly impossible situation for Ryan Newman when he stepped into the No. 12 car in 2001. Despite the fact that Wallace had an ownership stake in his teammate's ride, the two teams began refusing to share notes almost immediately. Their problems mirrored those of the Hendrick rift, a combination of generation gap and two totally different approaches to setting up a race car.

What simmered for four seasons came to a boiling point at Martinsville in the fall of 2004, when a late-race run-in ended with Wallace sideways and out of contention for the win. He retaliated by giving Newman a shot after the checkered flag. For the next month, we all waited for the obligatory call and apology … but it never happened. Wallace crowed to the media about a lack of respect, and Newman responded with only, "Things are peachy."

In the end -- the two spoke only when forced to -- it cast a pall over Wallace's farewell tour, during which Newman went out of his way to talk about how great it was going to be when Kurt Busch arrived in 2006, because "we'll actually work together."

3. Geoff and Brett Bodine, 1994
First, let the record show that the Bodines weren't official teammates. The two ambitious brothers were on the cutting edge of what would become the 1990s' hottest and eventually extinct fad: the age of the driver/owner.

The elder, Geoff, never had been a great teammate over the years and went out on his own in 1992, buying the No. 7 team formerly owned by the late Alan Kulwicki. Brett was driving the No. 26 Quaker State machine owned by drag racing mogul Kenny Bernstein but was in the process of putting together enough cash to buy Junior Johnson's No. 11 team. Each brother helped the other complete his deal, and both promised to work together once those deals were done.

That all ended at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race was the inaugural Brickyard 400, and as it entered the late stages, the Bodines were running 1-2 when suddenly Geoff's black Ford T-Bird began spinning down the front stretch. Directly behind him was the culprit: Brett. As the No. 7 car bounced off the wall, Geoff came over the radio and told his crew, "That's my @#$% brother!"

When ABC Sports cameras caught up to Geoff in the infield, he revealed to the nation that the family was involved in some "personal stuff" back home in Chemung, N.Y., and that it had spilled over onto the track. He then looked directly into the camera to directly address his little bro. "I love him. He's my brother. But he spun me out."

The good news: They get along now, and Geoff even drove for Brett late in his career. The bad news: The name Bodine does not appear on the inaugural Brickyard 400 trophy; the name Jeff Gordon does.

2. Dale Earnhardt and Mike Skinner, Richard Childress Racing, 1996-2001
When Richard Childress expanded his Cup operation to two teams, he did so out of necessity. For the six-time champions to keep up with new-school owners such as Hendrick and Roush, they had to increase resources and sponsor revenue.

But in 1996, the idea of a multi-car team still was new enough that the thought process was: "How am I going to get the best stuff if that stuff is spread out over two cars instead my one car?"

Earnhardt was a staunch believer in that point of view, so when Skinner, the newly crowned Craftsman Truck Series champion, showed up in the No. 31 Chevy, the driver of the No. 3 went into full-on, silent treatment, intimidator mode. It was obvious to anyone who ever saw the two when they had to be in the same place at the same time, particularly if it was the final lap of a restrictor plate race at Daytona or Talladega.

"How bad was it?" asked Larry McReynolds, who was brought on board in 1997 to be Earnhardt's crew chief but eventually was moved to Skinner's ride and always shakes his head at the question. "We even had arguments about which one of Richard's planes each team got to fly to the track in. The No. 3 team always got to take the jet, while the No. 31 took the King Air prop plane. By the time we'd landed in the prop, the No. 3 had landed, eaten dinner and checked in to the hotel. How's that for setting the tone for a weekend?"

1. Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnett, Junior Johnson & Associates, 1984-86
Neil Bonnett
Bill Hall/Getty ImagesNeil Bonnett was a winner, but he and Darrell Waltrip never meshed with Junior Johnson's outfit.
The original two-car experiment of NASCAR's modern era began in 1984, when legendary driver-turned-powerhouse owner Junior Johnson merged his operation with another team and added its driver, Neil Bonnett. Ol' DW already was an employee, and a good one at that, having won Cup titles in '81 and '82 and narrowly missing a third in '83.

Problem No. 1: At the time, no one believed in the idea of a two-car team, and we mean no one. It hadn't worked since motorboat mogul Carl Kiekhaefer had seen success in the mid-1950s.

Problem No. 2: Bonnett and Waltrip already didn't much care for each other. Bonnett was a member of the fabled Alabama Gang and his mentor was Bobby Allison, who just happened to be Waltrip's most hated rival.

Problem No. 3: Johnson took an approach to managing the teams that was the total opposite of today's "everybody share everything" model. He believed that pitting the teams against each other would motivate them to be faster.

"I kept the shops a couple of miles apart on purpose," Johnson now says. "I'd ride up to the No. 11 shop and say, 'Boy, they sure do think they've got y'all beat this weekend'. Then I'd go up to the No. 12 shop and tell them, 'Man, they think y'all don't know what you're doing.'"

The tension turned into a full-blown explosion on May 12, 1984, at the Nashville Fairgrounds. Bonnett whipped past Waltrip as the caution came out on the final lap to take the win. But two days later, NASCAR heard Waltrip's protests and overturned the result, handing DW the win.

By the end of '86, the experiment had ended. Waltrip, who added another title in '85, left for Hendrick, Bonnett for Rahmoc, and Terry Labonte joined Johnson's operation. His new, streamlined, one-car operation.

"I'd done enough babysitting for the last three years," Johnson now says with a chuckle. "Them boys wore me slap out."

Dishonorable Mentions:
Carl Kiekhaefer Racing, 1955-56: Eleven drivers racked up 11 wins and two championships in two seasons … and fought like hell on and off the track.

Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield, Penske Racing, 1998-2001: A promising start to the '98 season degenerated into a total non-communicative mess by summer.

Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon, Richard Childress Racing, 2001-03: This pair would get into a fight at a funeral, let alone a team meeting.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, 2001-05: What began as beautiful friendship ended with a bizarre front-stretch crash at Charlotte in '05 and a corporate divorce.

Cole Trickle and Russ Wheeler, Tim Daland Racing, 1990: If you ask me, Cole had every right to T-bone that little weasel after the checkered flag at North Wilkesboro.

Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."

Ryan McGee | email

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