Being a teammate in NASCAR can be a complicated thing.
In what would seem to be the ultimate individual sport, a driver’s success is often defined on how well he or she performs within the team concept. Despite the advantages that can come from working with each other, it can also cause friction and bruised feelings.
Take Joe Gibbs Racing, one of NASCAR’s top teams and home to Kyle Busch, the Cup Series’ defending champion. All four JGR drivers – Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth – remain in the eight-driver Chase semifinals, which continue Sunday in the Texas AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Despite all that JGR has accomplished, some cracks might have been revealed last week at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, where Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson won. Johnson’s victory, which clinched him a spot in the Chase championship round in two weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway, was followed by some grumbling by Busch, who worried that he had been too accommodating to Hamlin and Kenseth as Johnson drove away with the race. Hamlin finished third, Kenseth fourth and Busch fifth.
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“We worked so good together that we gave (Johnson) the win,” Busch said afterward. “That’s how good JGR is.”
That was a classic case of Busch showing some very real frustration in a passive-aggressive way.
We’re all about as different as four drivers can be and it actually helps and is really good. We’re going to have days where we’re frustrated and we don’t get along, but we tidy that stuff up real quickly.
“That’s what Denny was looking for and I get it, I understand it,” Busch said Friday. “I didn’t (at the time) because I was more focused on one of us trying to go get the win and trying to still keep all of us eligible for Homestead. Denny did what he needed to do, which is respectable and understandable.”
What happened at Martinsville was dealt with during JGR’s weekly meeting, which includes drivers, crew chiefs, team owner Joe Gibbs and other team members.
“Everybody had a different perspective, but everybody understood one another and they really got over it very quickly,” said Edwards, who finished 36th. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
The week before at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, the JGR drivers used teamwork to their advantage. Kenseth, Edwards and Busch were safely inside the cut line to advance to the semifinals of the Chase, so they stayed together near the rear of the field and out of potential trouble all day. Only Hamlin, who needed a strong finish to advance, pushed to win. His third-place finish was enough.
But those last two races are prime examples of how tricky being a teammate can be (of all the top NASCAR teams, only Furniture Row Racing, with Martin Truex Jr., has just one driver).
Joe Gibbs Racing has four of the remaining eight drivers in the field in NASCAR’s Chase.
“We race each other hard,” said Edwards. “There’s teamwork as much as you can have teamwork, but we’re competitors. We race each other very hard. You’re going to have times where people are frustrated, that’s part of it. What we have though as a group is something that I think is really special. When we have issues, we get right to it and we resolve it. Yeah, we get frustrated with each other, but you get frustrated with everybody out on the race track so I think we’re pretty good.”
But if there are on-track problems, the always-blunt Busch will often vent publicly about them. He has had run-ins with plenty of drivers over his career – including one with Hamlin during the All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2010.
“You’re mad at someone every week for something,” Busch said. “Somebody might cut you off on pit road, somebody may hold you up on a restart, somebody may do something else – I don’t even know what, but there are going to be instances when you are going to be mad at other drivers, mad at your teammates.”
Busch and Kenseth are former champions, with Edwards and Hamlin both coming agonizingly close to the title. So Gibbs can often have a huge challenge when he tries to sort things out among his four talented and headstrong drivers.’
“We’re all about as different as four drivers can be and it actually helps and is really good,” said Edwards. “We’re going to have days where we’re frustrated and we don’t get along, but we tidy that stuff up real quickly.”
But it ultimately comes down to strategy on race day – whether it’s more beneficial to help the team or pursue your own agenda. During the Chase, those lines can easily blur.
“Being a good teammate is working as hard as you can during the week, working hard during practice, sharing information on the car and trying to help each other,” said Kenseth. “We all rely on that on Sundays. That’s what this sport was built on – one guy racing against the others and trying to win. I think we all realize that and the world is changing, too.”
It’s even more simple for Busch, who has this advice for his teammates:
“Race hard. Go for the win,” Busch said. “Do what you need to do.”