By DAVID NEWTON
CHARLOTTE — Imagine a situation on Saturday night at Richmond International Speedway where Dale Jarrett is running second but needs a victory to get in the “Chase for the Nextel Cup.”
His teammate Elliott Sadler is running away from the field, so the question is: Does team owner Robert Yates get on the radio and tell Sadler to slow down and let Jarrett win?
Or perhaps the only way Bobby Labonte gets into NASCAR’s new playoff system is if Kasey Kahne doesn’t finish.
Does J.D. Gibbs get on the radio and tell Tony Stewart to take Kahne out?
Or what if Mark Martin needs to finish ahead of Jamie McMurray to make the playoffs, but he’s three seconds back with two laps to go.
Does Jack Roush get on the radio and tell Greg Biffle, who is out of the points race, to block McMurray long enough for Martin to catch up and pass?
Don’t think such scenarios haven’t run through the minds of many in a garage full of multi-car teams with eight drivers fighting for three spots heading into the final race of NASCAR’s regular season.
Some also have considered the possibility of such scenarios during the final 10 races.
“Elliott and I spend a lot of time together, and we have never once said anything like that,” said Jarrett, who is 13th heading into the weekend. “I can’t imagine Robert Yates getting on and telling one of us to back off, the other guy needs the points. I can’t see that happening in any of these other guys.
“I know that happens in Formula 1 some, but this is NASCAR.”
In Formula I, it’s called “team orders,” where the team’s top driver occasionally is given preferential treatment when it comes to finishing order. It often is used during the final races if the championship is on the line.
NASCAR traditionalists frown on such behavior, although it goes on all the time to a degree. Martin might not be in 10th today had a teammate not allowed him to lead a lap here and there to pick up five bonus points.
Richard Childress ordered Robby Gordon, who is out of the points race, to let Kevin Harvick pass for the lead recently at Watkins Glen for the five bonus points.
“Be kind to your teammates,” Childress said with a smile.
But Childress is willing to take kindness only so far.
“I wouldn’t ask somebody to wreck somebody,” he said. “I wouldn’t accept that. If I can’t win it right, I don’t want to win it. But I would ask one driver to let another finish ahead, if it meant getting into the (playoffs), unless it’s for the win.
“Everybody is racing for the win.”
Roush was offended at the suggestion he might have one driver do something to give another an advantage.
“No,” he said. “Do you understand no? Two letters. Write that down. There’s no team orders that I’ve got, but there is an understanding that if one team takes another one out for anything that could be avoided, then I would not be happy.”
Dodge owner Ray Evernham, who has Kahne (9th) and Jeremy Mayfield (14th) battling for a spot in the top 10, agreed.
“It won’t happen on my team,” he said. “I try not to worry about stuff like that. If our cars are good and they’re fast and up front, we don’t have to worry about it.
“I try to worry about stuff that makes the car go faster.”
Defending points champion Matt Kenseth, who is in fifth and a lock for the playoffs, doesn’t know how many drivers would accept “team orders” if given to them.
“This isn’t ‘Days of Thunder,’ “ he said. “First of all, everybody has way too much respect for each other in the garage area. We have to live with these people basically every week of the year for 40 weeks, plus it’s dangerous.
“There may be teammates who can do little things to help each other, maybe let them have a position, although I wouldn’t see that happening either.”
Neither can Brendan Gaughan, one of three Penske Racing South drivers. If he’s fifth and teammate Newman, who is eighth in points, is sixth and in need of the points he plans on “driving the wheels off the thing.”
“I drive for Kodak and Jasper,” said Gaughan, who is out of the points race. “I don’t drive for Alltel or some of his sponsors. We are teammates, but at the same time I have to represent my guys.
“I haven’t been told to pull over or stop. I’ve got to have good finishes for our guys, and a top five is a good finish. I’m not going to wreck him, and I don’t think he’s going to wreck me, but we’re going to have a dogfight.”
Gaughan recalled the May race at California Speedway when he was running fifth and Newman was sixth with Kenseth charging hard.
“I was blocking him because I wanted a top five,” he said. “The only team orders we got there was just don’t take each other out.”
John Darby, NASCAR’s series director, said there is too much respect among drivers and their sponsors for anybody to intentionally do something to alter the outcome of a race.
But if that did happen, he said, NASCAR would come down hard on the violator.
“I would be hard pressed to believe a team is going to blow the last five races of the year to block for a team,” he said. “If the situation appears to be a rock solid case, there is no doubt in my mind that we would hand down a severe penalty.”
Drivers understand that to the point they may become less aggressive instead of more aggressive as many have anticipated.
“The guys in the championship (chase) right now, from about seventh to 15th, are so scared of wrecking or putting ourselves in a bad position that we can’t afford to take anybody out or do anything like that,” Sadler said.
“I think that’s why you saw a pretty calm race at Bristol, and you’re probably going to see the same thing at Richmond.”
Well, not from everybody.
“This is the make or break race of the year for us, so we’re going to have to pull out all the stops in order to put ourselves in contention to win,” said Harvick, who fell from eighth to 15th last week at California. “We’d rather not be in this situation we’re in, but what’s happened is done, and we can’t change it.
“We’re on the aggressive now, and they’re (positions 10-14) the ones who need to be looking over their shoulders not me anymore.”
Reach Newton at (803) 802-2091 or firstname.lastname@example.org