Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Teammates Can Be the Difference of Contending & Watching Others Contend

Pit road was packed, the race was headed to overtime, and frustration was bubbling under the surface for a lot of drivers. So, when things got a little too tight exiting the pits, emotion overflowed.

Kyle Larson took the brunt of it. Exiting the pits to the left of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott who was to the left of Denny Hamlin, Larson got pinched into Elliott by Brad Keselowski who was exiting his own pit stall, making it a tight four-wide.

Larson touched the left side of Elliott’s car lightly. Hamlin pulled ahead and Keselowski behind as they rejoined the field. 

Once Elliott and Larson were side by side, Elliott turned hard left.

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Kyle Larson Falls Short of Kansas Win, Runs Afoul With Chase Elliott

He didn’t get into Larson hard but the intent was clear: Elliott was letting his teammate know he wasn’t pleased. He reiterated his displeasure after the race, approaching Larson’s car and leaning into the driver’s window looking surly while exchanging words with Larson.

Larson defended his move, saying that if he hadn’t moved over, he’d have hit Keselowski’s No. 6 much harder and at a worse angle than he ended up hitting Elliott. He was probably right.

But one fact remains.

They’re teammates.

In a day where multi-car teams are practically a necessity for success in NASCAR’s top series, teammates are a necessity. And if they play their cards right, everyone in an organization can benefit from the others. 

In a bit of irony, HMS made teamwork throughout the organization a priority while some organizations still operated as several independent entities within one building, and they liked it that way. Hendrick, meanwhile, made sharing information among teams a priority. Owner Rick Hendrick went out of his way to pair drivers and teams with good chemistry and to hire and keep drivers who worked together in harmony and without friction.

It worked, and HMS racked up wins and titles in the late 1990s and 2000s. It even holds two of the last three NASCAR Cup Series championships. Post-race meetings involving everyone were the norm, and information was largely an open book among Hendrick’s four teams and drivers.

Other organizations were slower to adopt that model. Sharing information freely, even among teammates, was a foreign concept to many, and many of NASCAR’s top stars wanted nothing to do with it.

HMS, meanwhile, worked to make the team stronger, including a personnel move that came as a shock to just about everyone when it signed Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the 2008 season. Already at full capacity, HMS had a decision to make, and it looked like an obvious choice. Kyle Busch had a very strong 2007 season for HMS, with a win to go with 11 top fives, 20 top 10s and a career-best fifth-place points finish in his third full Cup season. Busch showed great promise, but he was also gaining a reputation as insolent and volatile.

Meanwhile, Casey Mears got his first Cup win in 2007 but only finished 15th in points with half of the top-10 finishes that Busch had. Mears worked hard and was solid but without Busch’s penchant for brilliance.

With Earnhardt coming aboard, somebody had to give up a seat for him. It was early summer in 2007 when the announcement was made, so the final season tallies weren’t in, but it didn’t bode well for Mears, even if he was reigning champion Jimmie Johnson’s best friend.

Except Hendrick cut ties with Busch instead.

There had been rumblings that Busch may have already been speaking to other teams, which may or may not have been prohibited in his contract, but in any case, the decision was made. At the end of the day, Hendrick went with the driver that it felt would be the team player. A year later, Mears was the odd man out when HMS signed Mark Martin, a veteran whose insight would be valuable as the organization continued to rack up wins and five straight titles.

Hendrick’s success was one piece of a change in the way other teams thought about teamwork, and information sharing is much more common now, even among organizations that have forged ties. Chemistry is considered when pairing drivers and crew chiefs and other drivers and crew chiefs. Owners give drivers input when it comes to their teammates. While at Team Penske, Brad Keselowski rallied for Joey Logano, who wasn’t quite living up to his potential at Joe Gibbs Racing. Tony Stewart chose longtime friend and rival Kevin Harvick to pilot one of his cars.

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Information sharing is a driving force behind the need for teams to work together, but what about on the track? Everyone’s competing for a win out there, teammates or not.

So, do teammates have a responsibility to look out for one another outside the Monday morning meeting?

Obviously, it depends on the team owner and how the team is run, but in general, yes, at least to a degree.

It goes beyond working together at superspeedways, though that’s certainly handy if it works out (and it doesn’t always). It’s small things, like maybe a lapped car racing the leader extra hard if his teammate is running second or planning restarts to work to both drivers’ advantage. Anything more than that toes, if not crosses, a line. Crashing a teammate’s competitor, intentionally causing a caution to help a teammate or otherwise manipulating races will draw NASCAR’s ire and rightfully so.

But in general, help a teammate when you can but don’t back down when you’re racing one for a win. And for Pete’s sake, don’t wreck each other. That’s something most owners are adamant about. After all, it costs them money as well as making those Monday meetings a little awkward. So, don’t do that. And definitely don’t do it on purpose.

Even though there was no damage, Elliott crossed a line on Sunday (Sept. 10). Given the fragility of the toe links on the Next Gen car, it could have ended Larson’s day (Larson’s sideswipe of Elliott could also have ended Elliott’s day, too, but it wasn’t intentional). 

The better all cars in an organization fare in any given race, the better the information they have to share is, and that only helps everyone in the organization improve in the long run. 

Larson and Elliott have a history of, if not outright rivalry, of not being best friends, either. Maybe there’s a little jealousy on Elliott’s part; he was touted as the future of HMS until Larson came along, and now it’s often Larson getting the accolades though Elliott is recognized as the sport’s most popular.

They’ll no doubt sort out Sunday’s tiff in the weekly meeting (or have it sorted out for them), but is this group of drivers as cohesive as HMS has had in the past? They still win their share, so they’re doing something right, but they don’t seem as tight knit as the teammates before them.

Meanwhile, RFK Racing struggled with team chemistry, to the organization’s detriment. There was tension among drivers more often than the occasional pit road beef, by many accounts.

But this year, the team, with the addition of Keselowski to the ownership group, has seemed to excel at working as one unit, and it’s paying off. Chris Buescher has three wins and Keselowski looks closer to victory lane every week. The organization has rebounded from lower in the Ford hierarchy to the top of it.

HMS will contend for the title this year with two teams in the playoffs, and whether there are cracks in the cement of their chemistry, they have a real shot at a third title in the last four years.

Meanwhile, as their cement solidifies, RFK also has a real shot at the title for the first time in several years. 

It’s not any driver’s responsibility to make sure his teammate has a good finish. In fact it’s absolutely his responsibility to try and win for his own team and sponsors. But organizations that appear outwardly cohesive have generally been the ones competing for wins on a weekly basis over at least the last couple of decades. If teamwork doesn’t keep a team on top year in and year out, it certainly helps it get there.

Chemistry matters. And sometimes that means putting the team first—or at least not taking out your frustrations on your teammate.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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I used to like Elliott until his popularity went to his head and he began to actually believe that he is the Golden Boy who is owed.

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