Fine line between teamwork, cheating

9/11/2009 - NASCAR

RICHMOND, Va. -- Imagine Denny Hamlin is leading Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway, a track where he wants to win worse than any other having grown up a stone's throw from the three-quarter-mile facility. Now imagine Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is running second with two laps remaining and has to win to make the 12-car Chase.

Get where we're headed here?

Hamlin gets the call over the radio to ease up and let Busch pass for the win. In other words, he throws the race.

Matt Kenseth, who entered the race 12th in points, is so peeved about being knocked out that he calls Hamlin a cheater. The two get into a shoving and name-calling exchange.

If this all sounds familiar it's because something like that happened in the NHRA last weekend at Indianapolis. John Force was accused of throwing a semifinal race to Robert Hight to get his teammate/son-in-law into next weekend's playoffs and knock defending Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon out. A confrontation between Force and Tony Pedregon ensued.

"What's wrong with that?" quipped Juan Pablo Montoya, who is eighth in the Cup standings and only 88 points in the clear of 13th-place Brian Vickers.

Few will admit openly that such plots are being considered or will happen, but with 11 drivers fighting for eight spots in the regular-season finale, there are dozens of ways teammates could impact who makes the Chase.

From letting a teammate pass for five bonus points for leading the race to letting a teammate pass to pick up the three to five points awarded for positions to a teammate's deliberately taking out a contending team, anything can happen.

The scenario with Hamlin and Busch just as easily could occur with Ryan Newman, in ninth place and only 81 points in the clear, and points leader Tony Stewart.

"I've been paying him $10 a race the last 10 races so we could get a kitty going to do it," Newman said with a smile. "I don't know that he's got a phone call this week from Force, but I guess there is that potential."

Said Stewart, "Should've started with $20."

Seriously, though, these things could happen.

"Absolutely," Newman said. "There's always teams manipulating things. We saw it a couple of years ago. We made a lot of talk of Roush [Fenway Racing] letting every car lead a lap when they could and things like that when they were dominating.

"That's another way of throwing it when you are giving positions just to get points and then giving it back. It's been going on ever since there was the first teammate back in the day. It's part of racing, whether it's NASCAR or NHRA or Indy cars."

That doesn't mean it's right. Three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson says there's no way team owner Rick Hendrick would ask him to give a win to Mark Martin even if it was the difference between Martin's making the Chase and not.

We'll see on that. Many of the sponsor contracts have provisions that can be worth literally millions in bonuses if a driver makes the Chase.

And even if Hendrick asked, Johnson might claim temporary hearing loss.

"For the win, it could be my mom back there and she's not getting by," Johnson said.

He also doesn't believe Martin would want to make the Chase that way.

"If we threw something for Mark, I think Mark would get out of the car and whoop some ass," Johnson said. "I don't think he would tolerate that. I'm not saying teams aren't talking about it, but I know we're not talking about it."

Johnson makes a good point about Martin, who wasn't thrilled a few weeks ago when asked to let Johnson pass to lead a lap.

"The other part about it, I race against these guys every week," Johnson added. "What comes around goes around. You don't want to control fate like that. I don't think I could have that on my conscience."

The comes-around, go-around theory applied to the NHRA controversy. In 2007, Tony Pedregon was in a close battle with Hight for the Funny Car championship late in the season. Many NHRA followers believe Cruz Pedregon let Tony defeat him in a Las Vegas race that allowed Tony to win the title by 19 over Hight.

Montoya saw it happen countless times while driving in Formula One.

"I guarantee it's been talked about," he said. "It'd be crazy if it happens."

He paused, then added, "Maybe I just gave [them] an idea."

It would be even crazier if a driver took another driver out to get a teammate in the Chase.

For the win, it could be my mom back there and she's not getting by.

-- Jimmie Johnson

"I'm not going to say that it couldn't happen, but we race with each other too much, too often, for stuff like that to go down," said Vickers, who is only 20 points behind Kenseth. "It just never seems to work out in the long run.

"There are still 10 races left. If you wreck someone to get into the Chase, you may be in the Chase but you probably won't win the championship."

You don't have to read between the lines to get what he means.

Stewart hopes it doesn't come down to any of that for him and Newman, particularly if it means giving up a win. He also admits he would have to consider it.

"Ah, man, it would be awfully hard to do," Stewart said. "I need those 10 bonus points really bad. That's a tough decision."

It would be tough for a lot of reasons. In Stewart's case, he would give up the 10 bonus points for winning, thus giving up a chance to be the points leader entering the Chase with four wins.

It would be even more detrimental for Hamlin. Not only would the Chesterfield, Va., native give up the opportunity to win his first Cup race at his home track, he would give up the 10 bonus points and give them to Busch, who would vault from out of the Chase to the top of the standings with five victories.

That could literally tear up the dynamics of the team, maybe ruin the friendship between Busch and Hamlin.

"You're asking for all kinds of s--- to happen," said Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief.

Ford said the scenario hasn't been discussed, but knows it's in the back of some people's minds. Although he doesn't believe team owner Joe Gibbs would issue such an order, Ford said Hamlin has been asked several times what he would do.

Hamlin's response?

"Awwww, awwww, awwww," Ford said.


"I think that is the answer," he said. "No."

But it certainly would spice things up if it came to that.

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