Teamwork takes a backseat to winning
"Don't have at it, boys."
Which is exactly what you'd expect the team owner to convey, but it also exposes the weakness in the team concept for racing. Unlike stick-and-ball sports, you still have to beat your teammate.
The new 2010 theme in NASCAR to "have at it" is great overall, but not so great for Hendrick Motorsports teammates in the eyes of the boss. He spoke with his two drivers by phone earlier this week to try to smooth things over.
Johnson said Friday he and Gordon also spoke on the phone this week and all is well. Hendrick told Johnson, "You guys need to voice your opinions, but let's not let this carry on too far and affect the race shop."
It's an odd quirk that Mark Martin put in perspective for me a few years ago when I asked him about a teammate while he still was driving for Jack Roush.
"First, I don't have teammates," Martin said. "Not like you think of it. I have associates who drive for the same team owner as I do."
Point taken. Martin wanted to make it clear that the team concept goes only so far in racing. Sometimes, it gets in the way of doing what you need to do.
"Every driver has had a run-in with a teammate," Jeff Burton said Friday at Richmond International Raceway. "It's inevitable. We have the odd situation of asking your teammates to help you beat them. That's hard to do.
"This is a self-serving sport, but we're asked to work together, which is kind of contradictory. It's very difficult."
Drivers are expected to race their teammates differently than they do everyone else on the track. Race a teammate a little too aggressively and suddenly you have a "team issue."
"Those things usually are better handled behind the scenes," Burton said. "Sometimes I've handled it well and sometimes I haven't. When tensions are high, sometimes you can't. But doing it on Monday instead of Sunday usually is better after everybody has cooled down.''
"It's tough at times having a constructive conversation with Kyle, but we make it work," Hamlin said Friday. "You just have to learn his language."
Sometimes things get lost in translation. Gordon feels Johnson has not raced him fairly in the past two races -- Texas and Talladega -- and wasn't shy about expressing his feelings.
"He's testing my patience," Gordon said after Johnson darted in front of him at Dega. "I'm pissed right now."
Gordon also complained about Johnson on the radio during the Texas race after Johnson rammed his door panel: "He expects to be treated differently than everybody else," Gordon said.
Johnson took the blame for the Talladega incident, but he still is upset about Gordon riding his bumper at Texas.
"There comes a point where you have to race people the way they race you," Johnson said Friday. "That's what happened in Texas. I said, 'That's enough.'''
Both men now say all is well. And I'm sure it is until one of them bumps the other Saturday night at Richmond.
What happens then?
"The competitor in me says they should continue to run into each other," Hamlin said, somewhat jokingly.
Bumping and banging is a regular occurrence on the 0.75-mile short track at Richmond, a place where tempers flare.
"If me and Kyle were running 1-2 every single week like [Johnson and Gordon] do, I'm sure we'd be in the same situation and running into each other," Hamlin said. "You not only want to be the best on the track, you want to [be the] best on your team and the leading team guy. The 48 [Johnson] has had that title a while and the 24 [Gordon] wants it back.
"Outside looking in, I think Jeff is frustrated. He hasn't won in a while. He had a better car than Jimmie most races this year, but Jimmie has won three races and Jeff won zero."
So the idea of doing what's best for the team has limits, and it comes up more frequently now than it ever has in the past. Despite NASCAR's rule of a four-car maximum per team owner, team associations are growing.
Roush Fenway Racing is aligned with Richard Petty Motorsports, making it a pseudo eight-car operation for Ford.
Drivers say all those associations go out the window once the green flag falls, but the Gordon-Johnson dilemma shows things can get testy.
In the eyes of many fans, that's not all bad. Are feuding teammates good for the sport?
"Everybody loves controversy,'' Johnson said. "So yeah, it's good for the sport."
Burton isn't so sure.
"Not to be rude, but I don't really care," Burton said. "I guess I shouldn't say that, but the more you talk about it, the more it seems fabricated. The emotions become more important than the racing."
Sometimes you don't know how a teammate feels. Burton was Martin's teammate at Roush years ago. I told him Friday about Martin's old "I don't have teammates" line.
Burton laughed and said, "That's not what he told me."
So have at it, boys, unless, of course, it's your teammate.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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