MWR scandal shows teamwork has its limits
September 12, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
CHICAGO -- Kevin Harvick sees the storm of controversy enveloping Michael Waltrip Racing, and the former team owner in him can relate.
MWR was hit with some of the harshest penalties in NASCAR history this week for what the sanctioning body deemed a manipulation of Saturday night’s regular-season finale at Richmond, which ended with Waltrip driver Martin Truex Jr. claiming the final Wild Card berth to the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The ensuing point deduction knocked Truex out of the playoff in favor of Ryan Newman, who seemed en route to securing a berth before the actions of MWR’s Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers altered the outcome in the final laps.
What if Bowyer hadn’t spun suspiciously to bring out the final caution, and Vickers hadn’t pitted unexpectedly on the final restart to help Truex squeeze in through a tiebreaker? Harvick has an idea, given that he faced a similar situation as a Camping World Truck Series owner in 2008, when two of his entries dueled for the race victory when one of them had a title at stake.
That scenario also involved Newman, who beat Ron Hornaday Jr. at Atlanta in the 22nd of 25 events that season -- a season where Hornaday would go on to lose the championship by seven points to Johnny Benson. Up on the pit box that day, Harvick was quizzed by people who wondered why he didn’t order Newman to let Hornaday win. Some of his employees were so incensed over the situation, they quit.
“Ryan passed Ron for the lead, and I stood on the pit box as an owner with employees and people saying, ‘What are you doing? We’re racing for a championship.’ And we wound up losing the championship by that amount of points. And I had a lot of the same media here today asking the same questions -- why didn’t you do the right thing and let Ron win that race to win the championship?” Harvick said Thursday during a Chase media event at Navy Pier.
“You want to do what’s right for your team. (Saturday) was handled very, very, very poorly by the MWR organization as far as management and spotters and all the things that they did. It was kind of, throw it in your face and say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing, people.’ But as a team owner, you have to do what’s right for your team. As a competitor, I can sit here and say I will do anything it takes to win. As owners and NASCAR, they have to protect us from ourselves.”
Welcome to the murky world of teamwork, the seediest side of which seemed to be exposed last weekend at Richmond. And yet, in the decades since multi-car teams have become common, drivers helping one another on the race track has become as routine as a pit stop. Hardly anyone bats an eye when one driver gives a teammate his lap back, or lets him lead a lap to pick up a bonus point. It’s when a much bigger picture becomes involved that people get uncomfortable, and teams make decisions that define where the boundaries of teamwork truly lie.
NASCAR surely helped to define that demarcation point this week, in the form of the historic penalties levied against MWR for race manipulation. And yet, it seems clear that the events of the past week won’t stem teamwork cooperation completely. When the Chase finally begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, there will certainly be drivers who will cut teammates breaks on the race track, just as they always have before. The difference is that now, everyone has been reminded of the limits.
“I think we kind of all understand how we’ve done it for years, and what helps and what doesn’t help,” Kasey Kahne said. “In the Chase, all that stuff calms down a little bit anyway. I remember last year trying to lead a lap somewhere, and Jimmie (Johnson) wouldn’t let me lead. I was in the Chase and one point would have helped, but when we get down to it, if we would have finished strong at Homestead, we would have been separated by one point. If you’re better than a teammate … they’re going to work with you. I would hope my teammates would. Other than that, you’ve got to get all the points and everything you can, and you’ve got to pretty much do it on your own.”
It’s nothing new. For years teams have held meetings to hash out plans for restrictor-place races, where help from other drivers can be critical in progressing through the draft. In more recent years, Trevor Bayne was told to dump Jeff Gordon as a drafting partner at Talladega because of a manufacturer conflict. Greg Biffle can remember his first season in NASCAR’s top division, and being lectured by veteran Sterling Marlin. “Listen, that damn car is 16 feet long,” he told the rookie. “All you have to do is give me 16 feet.”
“There are multiple layers to this thing,” Biffle said. “It isn’t like price fixing. In certain situations where you are coming down to the end of this thing … you are asking that lap car to cut you a break. Because some race tracks are really hard to pass. If you catch a car, let's say Kasey Kahne, and he is running good but he is a lap down, I can’t pass him and I would be saying, ‘Hey, go down and ask Kasey if he will cut me a break and give me a lane so I can get by.’ Now, I am not going to do that if he is on the lead lap, OK? There is nothing wrong with that, and that happens in every form of motorsports.”
Newman recalls the five-car glory days of Biffle’s Roush Fenway team, when “they had the cars lined up that they could give and take, give and take, give and take,” he said. “That’s been a part of our sport for a long time. Manipulating the race to change the outcome by causing a caution or whatever else is an entirely different situation.”
And yet, Kyle Busch -- who owns Nationwide and Truck Series teams in addition to his duties as a driver with Joe Gibbs Racing -- can understand why the temptation was there. Getting into the Chase, he said, brings with it financial bonuses from both a team’s sponsor and manufacturer that can add up to an additional $3.5 million for the organization.
“That’s a huge, huge financial implication for a team, whether it for the remainder of this year or even for building cars into 2014, because as we know, money buys speed,” Busch said. “And you do anything you can to get yourself in the Chase. It’s not just being a Chase driver or being in the Chase. There are so many other things on the docket as well.”
The MWR example is unquestionably an extreme case. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- running right behind Bowyer at the moment of his spin, and among the first to claim that it appeared intentional -- believes it underscores just how close the bonds between race teams can be. Earnhardt and Johnson share the same shop at Hendrick Motorsports, and he said people would be surprised at how tightly the two units work together.
“People ask all the time whether we share information amongst the teams. You wouldn’t believe how open the books are. I guess people just assume that Chad Knaus is over there hiding everything in this little folder, that none of us can see what Jimmie’s got,” Earnhardt said, referring to Johnson’s crew chief.
“But the book’s wide open. And everything that’s happening between the teams is like flowing. Information is flowing like a damn river. I don’t know why that surprises people. … This (MWR situation) is similar to that. People didn’t think it was happening, or were so surprised that this went on. It definitely has a new twist when it comes to … several different drivers in one team sort of working in one direction, when in the past it’s been one guy with the flat tire that gets the caution, or that’s lost the draft at Talladega and is throwing roll bar padding out the window or something like that. We’ve all done that, or thought about doing it. It’s definitely a new twist on things.”
A twist NASCAR doesn’t want to see again -- as evidenced as the penalties levied against MWR. Teamwork will go on, in Sunday’s race at Chicagoland just as it always has. But if anyone wondered where the limit was, a definitive line has now been drawn.
“I believe in this situation, NASCAR stepped in to protect the integrity of the sport,” Harvick said, “by saying, ‘Hey, you guys are out of bounds here. This is not how you handle this, and it’s not right.’”