Letarte: Making the case for why teamwork works in racing

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The Daytona 500 has prompted a new wave of chatter on social media and otherwise about an age-old debate in NASCAR: Are teammates good for the sport?

After the dominance of the Toyotas in the Sprint Cup season opener, many are questioning whether teamwork is healthy for NASCAR. It’s been an ongoing dialogue for decades, and I think it’s flared up again with the recent introduction of charter system that guarantees spots for 36 cars in every race. That’s prompted some people saying, “It’ll be nine owners, four cars each.”

I don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future, but I am here to make this argument to those who don’t like multicar teams: Teammates ensure a better quality of racing and a higher level of competition in auto racing.

And the two biggest auto races to happen in the world over the past month – both at Daytona International Speedway — prove exactly why.

In the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, the Corvette C7.Rs finished 1-2 in the GT LeMans class with a margin of victory of 0.034 seconds – the closest class finish in Rolex 24 history.

Oliver Gavin and Antonio Garcia finished virtually side by side after 24 hours, and that only happened because Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan allowed it. He controls both cars. So if he had said with 30 minutes remaining, “We’re done, you had nearly a full day to race it out, here’s how we’re going to finish,” he could have.

But he didn’t. He respected the sport. He respected the sanctity of racing. He allowed his two racers to compete to the finish without trying to orchestrate the outcome.

It was one of the best examples of factory-driven, big-time racing not affecting the results or predetermining a winner.

I think Joe Gibbs Racing and the Toyota Racing Development cars in the Daytona 500 is the second-best example of this.

Without a doubt, they played nice for 99% of the race until the final lap. Yes, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. purposely worked with one another, and I’m fine with that strategy.

If Hamlin hadn’t won by pulling out of line and making the winning move on the last lap, I’d be standing here today and saying that ruins racing if no one attempts to win. But the fact that Denny pulled out of line past the white flag, got the big push and won the race – that proves that large teams do not hurt racing.

Even though Hamlin claimed he won by accident in trying to block Kevin Harvick, we also heard Kyle Busch say that he planned to make the same move before Hamlin beat him to it.

Hamlin tried to win. If there were magical team orders he was worried about, he could have not won that race. He could have not passed Kenseth for the lead in the last corner.

There were some instances where the teamwork was very obvious. On some restarts, Truex started on the inside and allowed Kenseth’s faster Camry to take the lead.

I have no problem with this. These are 500-mile marathons. In the end, it’s cutthroat, and everyone wants to win, but the first thing you have to do is get through the first 11 chapters of the book. You have to get there.

I feel that they were using whatever means necessary to get there. If that means letting someone in, then that’s what they did.

I’m a racing purist who loves the sport. Having large manufacturers and multicar teams isn’t hurting racing, as long as the manufacturers, Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs, Jack Roush and other owners maintain their responsibility to continuing that that trend.

That’s because the manufacturers and those owners — not NASCAR and not the fan base – ultimately control the ability to affect the racing.

There needs to be a clear-cut line in the sand where the concept of teammates ends.

Based on their postrace comments, Joe Gibbs Racing’s drivers knew when they saw the white flag, it was on. They would stick together until the last lap.

The most important part of any multicar team plan is it has to be so lucid that every driver has a window of opportunity to win the race. If your agreement is to work together, it might be until the white-flag lap, but that opportunity still exists. That’s the difference.

That’s why the five TRD drivers were OK with what happened. Maybe they didn’t like how it ended for them, but they were OK with it. Not at one point was Kenseth saying, “I can’t believe Denny, my teammate, did that.”

The plan was to let the best man win – and I like that.

If we ever lost that, then you’re going to lose a race fan in me because one car shouldn’t have to race against five.

This was a major problem with the two-car tandems that were prevalent at Daytona and Talladega five years ago. NASCAR eliminated them because only half the field had a chance in every race.

When I was a crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, there was only one team order: Don’t wreck each other while trying to win the race. That nearly happened when my driver, Jeff Gordon, tried unsuccessfully to battle his way past Jimmie Johnson for the lead in a March 2007 race at Martinsville Speedway.

Later that season, Jimmie and Jeff waged one of the greatest two-man battles for the title in NASCAR history. Jeff is Jimmie’s mentor and brought him in the sport, and he damn well didn’t expect him to give us a championship. It wouldn’t have been a way better story to say we still beat him for the title.

When the green dropped, there was a level of professional understanding among our cars. I knew I wasn’t going to ask Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, a question that I wouldn’t want him to ask me. When you’re racing your teammate in the closing laps, and I’m not going to ask which lap they’re going to pit. I’d never ask Chad Knaus to give me information for me to take advantage of him. Why would I put him in a position where he even feels like he needs to be dishonest?

It was an open book for six and a half days a week. For three hours during the race, it needed to be needed to be every car number trying to win the race for its fans, sponsors and itself. 

That’s what we saw at Daytona twice this season.

During crunch time with two of racing’s biggest prizes at stake, athletes were allowed to perform at their peak by the powers that be — unburdened by the concerns of team allegiances.

Covette Racing spent millions on competition and marketing to achieve and promote its 1-2 finish. But there became a point where the reverence for racing outweighed everything else. The priorities of carrying the Covette banner weren’t bigger than the magnitude of the Rolex 24. For the greater good, they raced tooth and nail, and it was the key to honoring the event.

Technical associations and multicar teams won’t hurt the racing if the drivers still are allowed to race.

As long as that’s what we’re doing, I’m good with it.