NASCAR

'Team orders' concept just makes sense

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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In Formula One racing, team orders are commonplace.

It’s an accepted practice for a racing organization to have an alpha driver and a beta driver. And the latter is expected to help the former do whatever it takes to win a race and/or a championship.

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Fundamentally, I have no problem with the concept of team orders whatsoever. Any success showered on a company benefits everyone. And given the economic climate in NASCAR, it’s an organization’s accomplishments that will attract sponsorship — the lifeblood of any race team.

So when word of a “One Ford” edict began circulating through Talladega Superspeedway on Friday, it wasn’t surprising. Ford drivers who traditionally drafted with non-Ford drivers were asked to take one for the team. A story on Ford Racing’s website actually described the situation thusly: “Marching orders from Roush Fenway Racing co-owner Jack Roush included the very strong suggestion that drivers running Roush Yates engines should avoid helping any drivers outside that circle during Sunday’s race.”

So why won’t anyone own up to this? When did the phrase “team orders” become so ugly?

“This weekend, there were no team orders, from myself or anyone at Roush Fenway, given to any of our drivers as to whom they could or could not choose to run with or assist, nor did I give similar directions or suggestion to any of the other Ford drivers,” Roush said in a release Tuesday.

Perhaps it’s hard for some to fathom that NASCAR’s newest sweetheart, Trevor Bayne, could do something so dastardly as dumping four-time champion Jeff Gordon to help teammate Matt Kenseth on Sunday.

With two laps remaining in Sunday’s Good Sam Club 500 — and the race under caution — Bayne agreed to partner with Gordon, who drives for Chevrolet. But Kenseth lost drafting mate David Ragan when Ragan’s No. 6 Ford developed engine issues. Still, Bayne backed in behind Gordon until his spotter came over the radio as the cars entered Turn 2 to inform him that Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford needed help.

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In a matter of seconds, Bayne had to decide whether to help his teammate, or help his mentor and lifelong hero.

Philosophically, that’s a tough problem to have. Would Bayne have been on the radar during Daytona Speedweeks without the vote of confidence from Gordon, who practiced and drafted with Bayne to help get the 20-year-old up to speed?

On the flip side, Bayne’s paycheck comes from Roush, who owns the car that Kenseth drives as well.

Consequently, Bayne took one for the team. He didn’t make the move out of spite. He made it out of necessity.

“It starts earlier in the week where everyone’s arranging who they were going to work with and what they’re going to do when they get to Talladega,” Bayne said Tuesday morning on Sirius NASCAR radio. “Every team has a plan when they get there, and that’s why you see some teams at the back of the field, you see some teams leading, and for the most part you see teams working together. With us being a single-car team and being the ninth car — the odd man out — we knew we could possibly be put in a tough situation at Talladega, not having anyone to work with. We’d kind of have to find somebody to work with when we got there.

“(Owners) Eddie Wood, Len (Wood) and Donnie (Wingo, crew chief), we were kind of talking about it. We were like, ‘Man, we don’t really want to work with anyone in the Chase because we don’t want to get in the middle of it. We’re just kind of going to stay out of the middle of everything, lay low. We have nothing to gain either way.’

“So the whole race long, I ended up working with (Ford driver) Robby Gordon because he’s not a Chase driver — even though he is another manufacturer. I had to work with somebody because I was going a lap down if I rode around by myself.”

As the race unfolded, Bayne lost Robby Gordon, who had damaged the rear end of his car. He picked up Marcos Ambrose, another Ford driver, but Ambrose’s No. 9 Ford blew a tire in closing laps, and the pair were separated. Then Bayne was approached by Casey Mears and Jeff Gordon.

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Still, Bayne acknowledged later that regardless of whom he was teamed up with at the time, “If a Ford needed help or anyone else in our camp needed help, we’d help them.”

Jeff Gordon appeared more disappointed than surprised about the situation.

“I think everybody knew coming into the weekend, the Fords made it very clear about what they were doing in working with one another and helping one another out and all those things,” Gordon said. “So I didn’t expect him to commit to me on the radio.

“I expected him to say, ‘Man, I’m sorry; I can’t.’ And when he said, ‘Yeah, I’m pushing you; we’re good,’ I believed him. But I think they had a different plan.”

Generally, one leaves with the person they bring to the dance, but this isn’t high school. Racing is big business. Still, that didn’t stop Bayne from attempting to assuage the ire of the masses on Twitter on Sunday night following the race:

“I’m not happy about what this has become ... It’s too premeditated. We should be able to go with whoever is around ... I won’t race restrictor plate races next year before I'm put in that situation.”

Roush feels that Bayne learned a valuable lesson Sunday.

“Trevor was put in a situation requiring a split-second decision on the track and in his response to questions justifying his actions afterwards, where it was almost certain that not everyone was going to be satisfied,” Roush said. “Trevor is extremely talented, but it is still very early in his career.

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“Over time he will grow to understand that in such a high-paced, competitive and hostile environment it is unlikely that all of his decisions will make everyone happy. I’m confident in his decision making, his ability and actions on the track, and I’m excited as we continue to move forward with his development.”

This is the closest the blue oval brigade has come to sniffing a Sprint Cup title since 2008, when Greg Biffle was second in the points standings (149 points behind Jimmie Johnson) and Carl Edwards was fourth (198 markers back) with four races remaining in the season. Edwards won three of the final four races and still couldn’t take down Johnson, who also won three races in the Chase and edged out the No. 99 by 69 points.

But 2011 has been different. Edwards has led the points standings for 18 of 32 weeks. The No. 48 Lowe’s crew has shown an uncharacteristic vulnerability this year not evidenced in the past few seasons — and Edwards has been there to capitalize on it.

Still, Edwards isn’t the only Ford driver in the mix. Kenseth, one of just two Roush Fenway racers to ever win a Sprint Cup title, is a serious contender as well. Not surprisingly, Roush Fenway Racing and Ford have a vested interest in winning the 2011 title.

Yes, there’s bragging rights. But this isn’t hobby racing. There’s a hell of a lot more on the line. The Nos. 6 and 17 Fords have a lot of real estate to sell on their sheet metal for next season — actually, most of it. And winning a championship would go a long way toward promoting the Ford brand and Roush Fenway Racing.

That’s something the Wood brothers have learned over their 61-year relationship with Ford.

“Our relationship with Ford Motor Co. goes deeper than anyone has had or ever will have,” team owner Eddie Wood said. “We had to do what we did to help win the championship. And I feel like we did the right thing. I’m good with that.”

And if Edwards or Kenseth wins the title this year, all the grumbling about team orders at Talladega will be forgotten.

Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Robby Gordon, Trevor Bayne

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