Team orders unlikely in NASCAR
FORT WORTH, Texas -- So far we've seen Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton banging for a potential win at Martinsville, David Reutimann pushing Harvick instead of a fellow Toyota driver to the front in the closing laps at Talladega and Clint Bowyer not giving an inch in beating teammate Harvick for the win and bonus points at Talladega.
Some even have questioned Jeff Gordon dropping off a two-car draft to the front with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson at Talladega, saying over his in-car radio that his engine was about to blow though it never did.
For the record, there was no conspiracy theory for Gordon to hurt Johnson's chances and close his deficit.
But does this mean organization and manufacturer loyalty isn't going to play a role in deciding the 2010 Sprint Cup champion over the final three races at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami?
Does this mean if Johnson, Denny Hamlin or Harvick, separated by only 38 points, need to pick up a position or a victory to help their title run over the final three races they won't be given it?
"We talked earlier this year," RCR team owner Richard Childress said. "If you have a chance to win a Cup race you go after it. If it comes down to the win, you guys have to do what you got to do.
"It may be different at Homestead, but not really."
For the integrity of the sport, as Burton said Friday morning at Texas Motor Speedway, let's hope not. Let's hope whoever wins the title earns it by having to race his guts out.
Let's hope it doesn't come down to what is going on in Formula One, where Felipe Massa arrived at the Brazilian Grand Prix on Thursday saying he would give way to teammate Fernando Alonso if that's what it took for Alonso to win the title.
That, by the way, prompted a Brazilian prosecutor to threaten Massa with being arrested and sentenced to six years in prison under the law that states it's a crime to "fraud by any means, or contribute to fraud, in any way, the result of a sporting event."
Let's hope it doesn't come down to a situation like the final race before the 2009 NHRA playoffs, where Robert Hight needed to beat his teammate and father-in-law John Force in the final round to make the Funny Car Countdown field. Force smoked his tires off the starting line and Hight won easily, costing Cruz Pedregon a spot and starting a feud that almost led to fisticuffs.
Hight went on to win the championship.
"Honestly, I wouldn't want to win the championship in that regard," Burton said. "No matter what, you're always going to know you shouldn't have won the championship."
But bonus points will play a huge role if the standings stay this close -- Johnson is up 14 points on Hamlin and 38 on Harvick, the first time the four-time defending champion hasn't had a triple-digit lead heading into Texas since 2007.
The difference between first and second could be as much as 25 points if the winner leads the most laps and second doesn't lead a lap. It'll mean a minimum of 15 points if the winner and second leads at least a lap.
You know at least one of the team owners will be tempted to issue team orders even if common sense won't allow him to act on it.
"If you start letting people win, that is an extreme integrity issue," Burton said. "For years people have let people lead laps and that kind of thing. Those things will happen if possible. I hope we don't get to a point where we let people win races. I have a major problem with that."
Judging from what we've seen so far, team orders won't be an issue. Having gone 74 races without a victory, Burton certainly isn't about to pull over for Harvick or anybody. Same for four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who has gone 62 races without a win.
But you may see teammates let teammates lead a lap for five bonus points. You may see teammates help teammates get back on the lead lap or prevent an opposing team from picking up a position.
But that's it.
"We're going to do everything we can to win the race here this weekend," Gordon said.
What you probably won't see is Gordon race Johnson as hard as he did here in the spring. It was so heated that Gordon said he was "disappointed" with Johnson and that "he must want to be treated different from everybody else."
Johnson responded: "I'm equally disappointed in him. At one point he was just on my bumper pushing me through [the] corner. I was saying, 'Man, just get off my ass so I can accelerate.'"
It got so crazy with 94 laps left that Gordon got under Johnson's car coming off Turn 4, tapped Johnson's bumper and forced him high on the track. Johnson in turn veered into Gordon's door panel, causing a fender rub in his own car.
"There's always been intense competition among the teams at Hendrick, which is a very positive thing, but you don't want it to get to the point where it starts to cause conflict," Gordon said.
Or cost somebody a title.
Burton and Harvick came to that conclusion after their run-in at Martinsville.
"Since then, Kevin and I have had a great chance to talk," said Burton, who is in 10th place and 352 points behind Johnson. "Kevin in no way expected me not to race for the win. He wasn't looking for me to let him go. He wasn't looking for me not to race him hard for the win."
Harvick still doesn't expect anything different from Burton or Bowyer. He was almost offended at the suggestion they would simply help him win the title.
"That would be ridiculous," he said. "That's a ridiculous question."
That doesn't mean the title contenders won't be raced differently. Burton said Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick may be cut some slack to avoid an incident that may cost them the title, "but I don't think you'll see a lot of pulling over late in the race and giving a guy a spot."
Talladega was a great example. Reutimann pushed Harvick at the end because it gave Reutimann the best chance at victory. Nothing else was on his mind.
"We had to do what gave us the best chance to win the race for our team," Reutimann said. "You always want to help your teams and the manufacturer teams, but sometimes circumstances don't line up and you have to do what is going to give you the best chance to win."
To be fair, Reutimann opened up a space for Hamlin to get back in line after Hamlin was lapped to keep him in front of David Ragan for the lucky dog. Reutimann later pushed Hamlin to the front, putting the Joe Gibbs Racing driver in position to get his lap back if caution came out.
Reutimann also pushed Kyle Busch to the lead once.
But bottom line, if a driver has a chance to win, he's going for it regardless of the championship repercussions for a teammate or fellow manufacturer driver.
That's what Gordon was thinking at Talladega as he pushed Johnson toward the front before backing off. Since he was out of the country on vacation with his wife, he hadn't heard the conspiracy theories this week, but he's not surprised they're out there.
"I laugh at it," said Gordon, fourth in points and 207 out of the lead. "Trust me, in a situation like that as much as I rode around the back all day, I was not about to lose that lead. I was doing everything I could to win the race."
Anything less would damage the credibility of the sport.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.