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Paired down: Race-long partnerships hit or miss for drivers

April 18, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Forming a race-long partnership worked for some, not as well for others

The two-car tandem style of drafting that debuted at Talladega Superspeedway last October continued this weekend in Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega.

But it took on somewhat of a new dimension, with mixed reviews. Specifically, many of the drivers in the 43-car field made a commitment to a single, race-long partner.

"Yeah, we pretty much just had the philosophy coming in this weekend, 'Don't leave your wingman.'"

--JEFF GORDON

It brought up some seemingly ridiculous scenarios of drivers dawdling on the race track and on pit road -- even stopping -- to enable their drafting partners to stay in sync.

In some cases, it paid off big. Hendrick Motorsports' shopmates, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., made it pay off by winning and finishing fourth, respectively.

"It's tough," said Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus. "You know, you have to change your mentality when you come to a track like this, and I think we have done, as a team, a good job of changing the mentality of how you run a racing organization at Hendrick Motorsports and being committed to the team and the betterment of the organization.

"We had to carry that to the 'N'th detail [Sunday] to make that happen. If you saw how we were working on the car, we were taking four tires; so was the 88 [Earnhardt]. We had damage, the 88 hung out and made sure their stuff was right, and they took two tires, we took two tires and vice versa."

Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, Hendrick's other shop-sharing tandem, were all over the map -- scored as far back at one point in the 188-lap race as 33rd and 34th -- but in the end, all of a sudden, they had surged to the lead. Gordon ended up third and Martin, in a wild photo finish, was eighth.

"Yeah, we pretty much just had the philosophy coming in this weekend, 'Don't leave your wingman,'" Gordon said. "I think we learned a lot in Daytona. In Daytona, we kind of said, 'Oh, let's just kind of ride out and see how it goes.' We didn't expect everybody to get right into twos as soon as they dropped the green flag.

"Based on that, we realized that you have to have somebody that you can count on, somebody that you trust, somebody that you can get on the radio and work -- and who better to do that with than your teammates? And in our case, this weekend, was Mark Martin. This is the first time we've done it. Now, going through the experience, we'll be even better the next time. Like I said, we put ourselves in position to win -- but I didn't work with anybody else all day long, Mark was the only one."

Those were the success stories, but Talladega wrote different endings for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing drivers Juan Montoya and Jamie McMurray, who dropped back from their 13th and 21st starting positions at the beginning of the race and paired up in the mid-30s to cruise for a while.

It ended up not paying off as Montoya -- while saving Ryan Newman's day when he speared Newman's completely sideways car and straightened it out -- ended up 30th after losing 11 laps fixing the damage. McMurray, stripped of his race-long drafting partner, finished where he started, 21st.

Near the end, Michael Waltrip Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and David Reutimann hooked up and despite being in the top five in the stretch run, ended up only 13th and 14th. And it figured their comments reflected their recent racing history. Truex Jr., who's been the victim of random, uncaused accidents, was thrilled to finally finish. Reutimann was not so much thrilled.

"I'm just disappointed -- really felt like we were going to be better than that," Reutimann said. "I got in line there and had to shove. The thing got really, really hot and just couldn't push any harder, so it's disappointing. We would get in the middle and for some reason our car would get pulled off of the car in front. We need to figure that out. The guys did a great job, just not the finish we were looking for."

Clint Bowyer, who won last fall's Talladega race, ended up second and could easily speak to how difficult it was to team up -- and stay teamed up.

"It's very difficult to stay with a partner all day long," Bowyer said. "My partner is Jeff Burton. I hated that we got separated. It happened when the caution that didn't happen -- when Ryan Newman [half] spun, everybody lifted -- everybody thought the caution was coming out. I looked out the side mirror and he gathered it up and I looked up and it was still green.

"So, I was like, 'Oh, man.' Jeff and I were way separated and luckily Kevin [Harvick, their Richard Childress Racing teammate] had got separated from his guy and still had the momentum I did. We hooked up and were able to go on. I hated that for Jeff; that very spot right there put him back in the field, and I don't know where he finished, but it separated us."