Heart or head. Dreams or reality. Pleasure or business. When you've got to choose between them with a moment's notice, you may end up in the right place without much liking how you got there. Such was the dilemma of Trevor Bayne at Talladega.
The Bayne/Jeff Gordon "team orders" story isn't going away, and it's not going away because some of the key players continue to make statements that fly directly in the face of their actions on Sunday night.
Step back and put yourself in Bayne's shoes for a moment. You've won the Daytona 500, yes, but you're still very much a rookie. And in one of the biggest races of the year, your idol, a guy you've worshiped for most of your life, comes over your radio and says he wants to pair up with you. This is one of those moments you've dreamed of for your entire life. Are you really going to have the presence of mind to say no?
Well, as it turns out, he should have, because Bayne's initial agreement to run with Jeff Gordon was what kicked off the entire "team orders" fiasco at Talladega, one that's no more clear on Tuesday after statements made by both Bayne and team owner Jack Roush. (While Bayne was technically running for the Wood Brothers, he's part of the Roush Fenway team.)
As Gordon recounted Sunday night, in the closing laps of the race Bayne agreed to run with him and the two began talking strategy. But then Bayne left Gordon hanging; Gordon didn't know it, but the No. 6 Ford of David Ragan had blown up, and Bayne dropped back to help Ford/Roush teammate Matt Kenseth. (In the photo above, you can see Bayne in the 21 getting pushed by Kenseth in the 17; Gordon, all alone, is falling backward, where he'd finish 27th.)
Let's get one element out of the way right now, though: Bayne did not reel in Gordon with the express intent of ditching him once the green flag dropped. That's not in Bayne's character, and that's not ethical racing. Despite what some Gordon fans may believe, there's no way Bayne deliberately duped Gordon before the final green.
Ah, but WHY did Bayne drop back? That's starting to become the key question. "This weekend, there were no team orders, from myself or anyone at Roush Fenway, given to any of our drivers as to whom they could or could not choose to run with or assist, nor did I give similar directions or suggestion to any of the other Ford drivers," Roush said in a statement on Tuesday. And in an interview with ESPN's David Newton, Bayne said that he dropped back to help Kenseth on his own volition, not from orders over the radio.
Trouble is, those two accounts don't square with three in-the-moment recollections: Gordon's, Bayne's, and Roush-Fenway's:
• Immediately after the race, Gordon told Yahoo! Sports that Bayne apologized to him in person, right behind the 24's hauler, and said, "It wasn't me, it wasn't me. That's what I'm being told to do."
• Bayne took to Twitter and said he was "strong-armed into bailing" on Gordon. (That tweet has since been deleted from Bayne's account.)
• And a Roush-Fenway source told Yahoo! Sports on Sunday night that, in fact, there were explicit instructions to help other Ford Chase competitors if necessary. (There were no specific orders not to work with other manufacturers, the source said.)
The purpose of this is not to play "gotcha" here, although the story of who said what to whom at what time has changed in the last 48 hours. It's simply this: be straight-up. Bayne had every right to drop Gordon, and realistically, he had every obligation to help his teammate in a situation like this. Sure, he could have apologized to Gordon over the radio, but this was the middle of a race. Gordon, once he calmed down, was reportedly square with Bayne, who's taking this all much harder than he needs to.
And the idea of there being no team orders given is, quite simply, ludicrous on its face. Talladega and Daytona provide the starkest example of teammates working together; it's obvious that drivers from one team or manufacturer are going to do everything they can to line up with their comrades-in-arms, and that team owners are going to do everything they can to encourage that kind of assistance. To indicate otherwise insults the intelligence of the fans ... or feeds the constant, rampant conspiracy theories, which is even worse.
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- Trevor Bayne
- Jeff Gordon