CHICAGO – Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick had come to talk about the 2011 Chase, which begins Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway. Instead, they were peppered with questions about team orders and whether or not Paul Menard acted on one to help Harvick win last Saturday night at Richmond.
Why the questions, particularly with the race nearly a week in the rearview mirror?
For starters, because Menard's radio chatter paints a particularly curious picture. Then there's the fact that Harvick beating Gordon does have an impact on the championship battle; Harvick got three bonus points for the win that Gordon did not, a six-point swing.
In question is whether Menard, about 80 laps down at the time, really had a tire going down late in the race or whether he invented one in order to bring out a caution that allowed Harvick, his teammate, to catch Gordon, who was driving away from the field.
Here is a rundown of radio communication over the final 60 laps between Menard, spotter Stevie Reeves and crew chief Slugger Labbe:
With 61 laps to go, Menard is told, "29 [Harvick] is leading by two seconds, do not need a caution."
A few moments later, Menard asks, "Do not need a caution, correct?" He's told no.
With 28 laps to go, Menard is told, "24 and the 29 are racing each other hard right now." Two laps later, Menard says to his spotter, "Stevie, talk to me."
"29 is leading by three-tenths right now," Reeves replies. "We're good right now."
Six laps later, Menard is told Gordon has taken the lead from Harvick. Moments later, a fourth voice – Mike Dillon, general manager of Richard Childress Racing – comes on the radio asking, "Slugger, can you go to channel 2?"
(Teams have a second radio frequency available, usually used in cases when the first one fails.)
Four laps later, Menard chimes in, "Think I got a right-rear going down." Within moments, he spins onto the infield grass.
"I think the right rear is down," he says.
(The video does not show Menard to have a flat tire.)
After coming down pit road, Labbe informs him that his "right-rear's in cords."
"I'd love to hear channel 2's audio," Gordon said Thursday at the Chase media day in downtown Chicago. "When you listen to the radio – and I've heard other people translate it to me – it sounds a little fishy.
"If any of that is true, of what's being speculated right now, all I can say is I've lost a lot of respect for Paul Menard, if that's the case."
Yahoo! Sports asked NASCAR on Thursday for a comment but was told vice president of competition Robin Pemberton wouldn't be available until Friday. NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp told the Associated Press, "We haven't seen or heard anything that would indicate [Menard] did anything inappropriate in Richmond. We watch closely the activity in each event all season long to maintain a fair and even event for all competitors. We naturally will do the same for the balance of the season."
Harvick responded that he wished he had Menard's tire to show that it was "down to the cords."
[Related: Did Paul Menard spin on team orders?]
"You know when you see something like that happen, you know what everybody is going to think," Harvick said. "Sitting from my seat, it looks like everybody is spinning everybody out so Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. can stay on the lead lap. … We can go on and on with this battle all day long. We could argue this point for many moons."
Take the underhanded jab at Junior for what it's worth. The bigger question is: Do team orders exist?
Gordon says they do and they don't. If a teammate is racing for a championship and the driver who's challenging him is on Gordon's bumper, Gordon said he would make it more "challenging" to pass. But he said he's never purposefully brought out a caution to help a teammate – not even Junior.
"When has that ever happened?" Gordon asked in response to Harvick's accusation. "We have never done anything to try to get Junior on the lead lap if he was down a lap, to my knowledge. Never.
"We do everything we can as a team to try to make our cars better, perform at a high level and be competitive enough to win races and win championships, but there's never been team orders," he continued. "I always try to race people the way I want them to race me. If the championship is going to get decided based on whether or not I held somebody up, would I do it? You know, to a certain degree, yes, I would."
Harvick said he felt just what Gordon is talking about a year ago in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway when he was in a three-way battle for the championship with Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Harvick explained that in that race, Mark Martin (Johnson's teammate) and Kyle Busch (Hamlin's teammate) raced him differently to help their teammates.
As for Saturday night, Harvick said he was unaware of anything going on with Menard. When asked if it makes him mad that some people might think he won unscrupulously, he replied, "Not really. They can come over and look at the trophy if they want.
"There's 10 times during [the] race that you can say the Hendrick cars were spinning people out or doing what they had to do to keep Dale Jr. on the lead lap. … Everyone's going to read a lot into situations that they assume things happen. You take it with a grain of salt and you just roll on."
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