Stakes on the rise, as are concerns about fairness

Posted: Thursday, September 09, 2004

RICHMOND, Va. The talk going into Saturday night's Chevy Rock 'N Roll 400 at the Richmond International Raceway is about the new Chase for the Championship, and how nine drivers will be fighting for the final four qualifying spots to compete for the series championship.

What drivers aren't talking about at least in public is the real threat of team racing.

Flashback to the Michigan International Speedway six years ago. Jeff Burton was leading the race when the caution flag waved. He slowed down in the fourth turn to allow Mark Martin, his teammate at Roush Racing, to pass him to get back on the lead lap. An hour later, Martin was in Victory Lane.

Go to the final race of the Craftsman Truck Series season last year when three drivers were in contention to win the championship. A teammate for contender Ted Musgrave crashed another contender, Brendan Gaughan, to turn the championship battle into a two-way race.

Or remember the countless times Dave Marcis, an unofficial teammate to the late Dale Earnhardt, either stopped or stalled his car on the track to bring out a caution just when Earnhardt needed it most.

All nine of the drivers fighting for the final three spots in the top 10 will have at least one teammate in Friday's race. That creates the very real possibility of manufactured finishes.

Elliott Sadler, for example, will clinch his position in the Chase by merely starting the race. But his Robert Yates Racing teammate, Dale Jarrett, is 13th in the standings and needs some help to be part of the 10-race runoff for the championship.

Sadler could easily let Jarrett pass him to gain points, then block other drivers who are fighting for a spot in the Chase.

Or what about Jamie McMurray? He's in the race for the Chase and he has two teammates Sterling Marlin and Casey Mears who could help him influence the outcome of the race.

Martin is 10th in the rankings, knowing the 10th-place position has changed five times after the last five races. He has one teammate Matt Kenseth already in the Chase, another who will clinch a spot barring a catastrophe Kurt Busch and two other teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle who are out. All four are in position to give him some help.

Bobby Labonte needs help to make the cut, and he could get it from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Tony Stewart.

Kevin Harvick needs a lot of help, but he's got Robby Gordon and Burton who could serve as tag-team partners.

Teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon clinched their spots in the Chase a couple races ago. No other Hendrick Motorsports drivers Terry Labonte and Brian Vickers can qualify for the Chase, but they could play a role once the playoff starts. The Hendrick camp, however, said they won't resort to such tactics.

"I hope that other drivers make that choice to be respectful of where people are in points," Johnson said. "If I do something that affects one of those guys who are eighth through 15th and now they're out of the cut, when we get to the final 10, I've got somebody who is upset with me.

"So it doesn't do me any good to lead off someone and move them out of the way."

The competition to be one of the 10 drivers racing for the championship has clearly taken a toll. Sadler said he's been so worried before every race in the last month that he nearly vomits when he hears the command to start the engine. His victory at California last week helped soothe those nerves.

Despite a history that proves otherwise, every driver in or out of competition for the championship said there won't be any team orders given this week or once the Chase for the Championship starts.

"This isn't 'Days of Thunder;' that's not going to happen," Kenseth said. "Everybody has too much respect for each other in the garage area. We have to live with these people 40 weeks a year.

"There may be teammates who can do little things to help each other, although I wouldn't see that happening either."

Vickers said he's going to race his teammates just as hard as he does everyone else once the Chase starts Sept. 19 at the New Hampshire International Speedway.

"I'm going to respect their situation, but I come here to win just like they do," Vickers said. "I'm not going to cut them any slack. I don't feel the pressure to cut them any breaks. I'm not going to pull over for them or anything. I'm going to race them as hard as everybody else."

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