By JIM PEDLEY The Kansas City Star
They are called “team orders” and while they are rather commonplace in Formula One racing, they are viewed as obscene in NASCAR.
Well, at least they have been up until now.
Some drivers fear that as the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup championship draws near, some form of team orders may weasel its way onto NASCAR tracks.
Basically and briefly, team orders involve drivers from the same team helping each other during races as part of a preconceived plan.
Perhaps one of the best-known examples of team orders in Formula One involved Ferrari drivers Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello in 2002.
Schumacher and his team were seeking yet another world title that year. During the Austrian Grand Prix, Barrichello, who was leading, simply moved over so Schumacher could collect the victory.
Barrichello did that on the final straightaway, reportedly on orders from team leaders Ross Brawn and Jean Todt.
Later in the season, Schumacher thanked Barrichello by allowing him to get past and win the race at Indianapolis.
There was some grumbling by media, other teams and fans, but no official sanctions from F1's governing body, though it did lead to rule changes.
NASCAR officials insist that team orders will not be permitted in their series.
When plans for the Chase were unveiled at a news conference in January, NASCAR officials were asked if they thought the 10-driver, 10-race playoff might tempt some teams and drivers to dabble in team orders.
NASCAR president Mike Helton got real serious and said, “So far we have not seen it be a factor on the racetrack, but if it becomes one we'll react to it.”
The message was clear.
But the Chase has raised some very important stakes in racing, involving everything from prize money to keeping team sponsors happy.
Some think raised stakes may provide sufficient incentive to venture over to the dark side.
One of those is driver Jeff Gordon, the current Nextel Cup points leader.
“You know, as a team owner, you're looking at where you're positioned and how you're going to win a championship,” Gordon said. “I think if you've got teams out there that don't have a shot at it and they can help you either get into that top 10 or really (put) yourself in position to win the championship, I think there absolutely could be some team orders.”
His teammate, Jimmie Johnson, said he would not rule out the use of team orders by some teams.
“There's a lot on the line and a lot of money and prestige being a champion,” Johnson said.
Gordon said he doesn't expect to see the most dastardly kind of team orders — such as, he said, one driver purposely wrecking another in order to help a teammate.
Milder forms, he said.
“If they're out there racing, how they can, you know, help the other one get more positions or earn more points,” Gordon said. “Things like that.”
A mild form of team orders may have actually already occurred.
During the race at Watkins Glen last month, it appeared that Robby Gordon, who was leading, moved over and allowed Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick to make a pass and collect five bonus points for leading the race.
Gordon recaptured the lead shortly after those points were logged.
Nobody said much about that incident.
In fact, asked about it, some drivers said they had no problem with that type of tactic.
“I think it's real good,” driver Jeremy Mayfield said. “That's a teammate situation. It's pretty cool that Kasey (Kahne, his teammate) and I are right there neck and neck on it but you can probably see that if he was leading and I were running second, we'd do the same thing. Even though we're fighting for the same position, it's just good for the whole team in general.”
The five points Harvick collected allowed him to move past Bobby Labonte from ninth to eighth in the standings.
Neither Labonte nor anybody on the Joe Gibbs Racing team complained — at least not publicly.
NASCAR has hinted that those drivers who are believed to be using team orders will be parked.
Johnson said they will also be dealt with by their fellow competitors.
“I have to think in our sport, it's self-policing,” he said. “If you're going to be in there and messing things up, it will come back on you in some way, shape or form.”
Then there are those who think the culture of NASCAR will not permit team orders.
“This is not Formula One,” driver Brendan Gaughan said. “We don't pull over for each other and we don't block for each other and things like that.”
At least, they haven't so far.