TALLADEGA, Ala. - That's the trouble with choosing partners in the middle of a dance. Sometimes a quickie date doesn't work out quite the way you'd like.
In the closing laps of the Good Sam's Club 500 at Talladega, Jeff Gordon found himself in an unfortunate position: behind the wheel of a car with the capability to win the race, but without a partner to help push him. Mark Martin, his partner for the entire day, had just wrecked and taken out several drivers with him. And since the speed differential between single cars and two-car tandems was estimated at as much as 12 mph, Gordon needed a partner if he was going to have a prayer, and he needed one fast.
He and his team got on the mike to track down a replacement for Martin. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were locked in together; Tony Stewart declined the invitation, as he was already in sync with Paul Menard.
But then Gordon connected with, of all people, Daytona 500 winner and Sprint Cup rookie Trevor Bayne.
"Hey, what's your deal?" Gordon asked Bayne, who was starting 9th to Gordon's 8th. "You got anybody you're working with?"
"No, man," Bayne replied, according to Gordon. "I'm pushing you." From there, the two teams synced up strategy, and all appeared good to go.
So Gordon and Bayne aligned, and the green flag dropped. And suddenly, Bayne wasn't there anymore.
Hung out to dry, Gordon, who'd restarted within sight of the lead and had the car to challenge eventual winner Clint Bowyer, suddenly found himself a rock in the middle of a rushing river. He dropped back, back, back, all the way to 27th in the space of just two laps. And when it was over, he was composed but his disappointment was clear.
"If somebody is going to screw you, you'd like them to say it to your face, you know? Or at least on the radio," he said laughing. "I would have been fine with that."
What happened next was even more curious. Bayne stopped by Gordon's car in the garage and apologized, saying "Hey, it wasn't me, it wasn't me. That's what I'm being told to do," according to Gordon.
Those are the kind of words that set off alarm bells, concerns about team orders and how they could manipulate races. "It would seem to me like that's it," Gordon agreed.
Shortly afterward, Bayne took to Twitter for a remarkable confession. "I'm not happy about what this has become... It's too premeditated," he wrote, adding, "I would have rather pulled over and finished last than tell [Gordon] I would work with him and then be strong-armed into bailing."
Thing is, there's another side to the story. From the perspective of Roush Fenway, which runs Bayne in the Nationwide series and potentially in the Sprint Cup in coming years, Bayne's responsibility was to help that team's Chase competitors if they needed it, though there were no orders to deliberately avoid working with any other manufacturer or team.
Here's where it gets tricky. Matt Kenseth found himself without a partner, since David Ragan was having problems on the last restart. So Bayne was ordered to drop back and help push Kenseth. Does this constitute "team orders"? In the absolute sense of the term, yes, but wasn't every other team doing the exact same thing? In this case, Bayne made a promise he didn't have the authority to make, and Gordon ended up all alone because of it. Bayne ended up getting pushed by Kenseth, and would go on to finish 15th.
A source at Roush Fenway Racing told Yahoo! Sports that there was concern in the Roush organization about the content of Bayne's tweets, and that Bayne and Jack Roush would likely be discussing the matter within the next 24 hours. There's still some doubt on the Roush side as to where the responsibility lies: Did Bayne not understand the race strategy? Did Roush and Ford communicate different strategies? Did Bayne simply forget in the heat of battle and answer Gordon's request too quickly? All are possible.
Another Ford driver, Carl Edwards, offered his own perspective. "The plan was that we should stick together as Roush Fenway and as a Ford group and try to help one another the best we can," he said. "I thought we did a good job with that. I saw other teams doing the same thing. But you never know what's going to happen."
Regardless, this throws another wrinkle into the ongoing mess that is two-by-two racing. While Gordon is out of the tittle hunt, and wouldn't have been back in it had he won this race, this could easily have had much different ramifications for the championship, and still might in coming years.
More on this story as it develops ... and it surely will.
- Jeff Gordon