Commentary

Are teammates in the Chase helpful to one another? Views vary

Does having a teammate in the Chase help or hurt another Chase driver? There are as many answers as drivers in the Chase, writes David Newton.

Updated: September 22, 2007, 7:55 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DOVER, Del. -- The advantages and disadvantages of having a teammate in the Chase for the Nextel Cup have been debated since the playoff format was introduced in 2004.

Kurt Busch can't come to the track these days without being asked what it's like not having a Penske Racing ally in the mix.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who enter Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway tied for the points lead, can't come without being asked what it's like battling each other.

Most say the politically correct thing, that it's great having a teammate with whom to share information. That's what the owner would like them to say, after all.

Johnson finally set the record straight.

"I've been through some different scenarios, and I feel when you're the only guy in the Chase, there's a little bit more of an advantage because it's to the company's best interest that you win the Chase," he said.

"Granted the engines are all the same, but you get the engine with a couple more horsepower. You get all the focus. There's some small decisions that can be made that do give that one teammate just a little bit of an advantage."

But there are holes in Johnson's argument.

He finished fifth in 2005 when he was the only HMS driver in the Chase. In the years when he had at least one teammate as company, he finished second in 2004 and first in 2006.

Still, Johnson is sticking to his theory.

"It isn't a disadvantage, but the year Jeff missed it [2005], we felt like the focus was a little bit more 48-focused in the championship Chase," he said.

Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s Martin Truex Jr. and Penske's Busch are the only Chase contenders without teammates in the Chase. The remaining 10 drivers have one or two companions.

Richard Childress Racing and HMS each have three drivers in the Chase.

"It's good to have as many teams as possible from your company in the Chase," said Jeff Burton, who is joined by RCR teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer in this 10-race sprint. "We're going to work together the same way we've always worked together.

"We're not going to quit that communication and quit that effort because we're racing each other for a championship."

Gordon and Johnson are in the unique position of having their cars worked on by the same people under one roof at HMS. The only time there is a separation of power is on race day, when each has a separate pit crew.

"It's challenging as you get closer down to the wire, especially if you really are battling one another," Gordon said. "It definitely gets challenging.

"We pride ourselves on sharing information, and that information sharing is what has gotten us here. Hopefully, it is what's going to get one of us to the championship."

Only once under the Chase format has a driver won the title without having a teammate in the Chase. That was Tony Stewart in 2005 for Joe Gibbs Racing. This season, JGR teammate Denny Hamlin is in the playoffs with him.

Also in 2005, Roush Fenway Racing had five drivers in the Chase and finished second, third, fourth, seventh and 10th.

"I don't think it changes the strategy or how we share information or how we work together," Roush's Matt Kenseth said. "We all five work together the same, whether we are all in the Chase or none of us are in the Chase."

Kurt Busch
If you have a bunch of teammates and they're all gunning for the same thing and that's the championship, everyone is going to run their basic setup and there's not a program within the group for research and development in 2008.

Kurt Busch

But Busch, who won the 2004 title with then-Roush teammates Kenseth and Mark Martin in the Chase, leans more toward Johnson's theory.

"If you have a bunch of teammates and they're all gunning for the same thing and that's the championship, everyone is going to run their basic setup and there's not a program within the group for research and development in 2008," he said.

"That's why we have Ryan Newman developing completely different setups, trying to gather as much information as we can in a race atmosphere."

Kyle Busch said the toughest thing about having teammates in the Chase is knowing their names are Johnson and Gordon.

"So it's going to be tough," he said.

But in the end, the only driver anybody is concerned with is the one between him and the title.

In this case, the Chase never has been better, with Johnson, Gordon and Stewart, who have seven titles between them, at the top of the standings.

"I'm really excited about it," Johnson said. "My dad always told me growing up, in order to be the best, you've got to beat the best."

And if that happens to be his teammate, so be it.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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