Late in last Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, team owner Richard Childress came over Clint Bowyer's radio and asked crew chief Shane Wilson to switch to "Channel 2" – the same Channel 2 that caused a stir last month at Richmond.
Because Channel 2 is a digital channel and cannot be monitored, it's impossible to know for certain what Childress wanted to talk about, but you'd be safe to bet the farm on this: Childress wanted Wilson to impress upon Bowyer, not one of the 12 drivers racing for a championship, that conceding his position on the track to teammate Kevin Harvick would give Harvick one more point in the championship standings.
"I wanted to talk to [Wilson] about something else," Childress said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Just use your own instinct on that and answer it yourself."
When told that answer would be to tell the driver not racing for a championship to concede his position to the one who is, Childress responded, "I'm not going to tell them what to do. These guys are smart. They all understand. Hendrick's guys all understand, Roush guys understands, everybody understands. You're not going to do nothing that's not legal or not right, but you're going to race hard for your company."
And there it is.
The last month has brought an onslaught of talk and accusations about team orders. It started after Richmond when Jeff Gordon questioned the timing of a late spin by Paul Menard that brought out a caution and ultimately helped Harvick catch and beat Gordon to the checkered flag. It's continued in the ensuing weeks with Childress and others at Richard Childress Racing questioning the timing of several spins by Hendrick-affiliated cars. And it came to light once again Sunday when Childress asked Wilson to go to Channel 2, which we now know is the go-to place for owners and crew chiefs (drivers are not allowed) to have secret in-race discussions.
All of this has pulled back the curtain on "team orders." If you thought they didn't exist in NASCAR, they do, at least in some form, and drivers are not ashamed to admit it. If the situation is right and they can help out a teammate by giving up a spot, they will.
"If there comes a time when we are mathematically out of the championship, we will consider that," said Jeff Gordon, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports.
Said Carl Edwards, who drives for Roush Fenway Racing, "I hope that [my teammates] would help out and I think they will, but everyone is racing for different things. … Put it this way, if I'm out of the picture and Matt's [Kenseth] in it and there's something I can do to not hold him up, then I'm gonna do that. I'm gonna do the best I can to make sure I don't hurt Matt's chances. We've got a pretty tight group over there. Everybody seems to want to help each other. We've been through a lot together and I feel really good about my teammates."
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The idea of helping a teammate could be in full view next weekend at Talladega. There, the fastest way around the track is to pair up with another driver. In April, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushed Jimmie Johnson to victory, just nosing out Bowyer, whose push came from Harvick. As the pusher, Harvick finished fifth, collecting four points fewer than Bowyer. You think Harvick is going to expect to be the pusher with a title on the line?
"Every point matters, so you just race as hard as you can and see where it all falls at the end of the day," Harvick said when asked about teammates helping each other in the Chase. "I don't really know how to answer that 100 percent with the right answer there."
In other words, he doesn't want to say. But here's the thing: After all that's gone down over the past month, it's clear teammates help teammates, whether ordered to or not. Thus, when Childress came over the radio asking Wilson to go to Channel 2 for a private discussion, what was discussed was a secret in name only.
No one is questioning the legality of helping a teammate. It's well within NASCAR's rulebook. But is it ethical?
Racing is unique in that teammates do compete against one another. Still, it's accepted practice for crew chiefs and drivers to share information within the team about what's working and what's not; they build their race cars in the same garage, using the same parts. The idea isn't a new one: they are better as a collective than they are as individuals.
When they lose, they hope their teammates win. If they helped along the way, they hope it's reciprocated.
Unethical? No. They aren't fixing anything. They aren't throwing the game. They're just doing what teammates do.