When NASCAR officials encouraged drivers to “have at it” prior to this season, they hoped and expected to see some controversy and confrontations among their biggest stars.
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But even they didn’t expect such situations to erupt among teammates.
Not over and over and over again.
Nearly every other week, a driver has had some harsh words – or worse – for another driver after contact or a wreck on the track.
But a surprising number of those run-ins have been between teammates.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya got into at Las Vegas.
Hendrick Motorsports’ Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson tangled at Texas, and then again a week later at Talladega.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch had a dust-up during the Sprint All-Star Race, and then openly ripped each other again the following week.
Richard Petty Motorsports’ Kasey Kahne got ill with teammate AJ Allmendinger at Pocono.
And Sunday, Red Bull Racing’s Scott Speed was mad at Casey Mears, who is filling in for Brian Vickers, for spinning him at Michigan.
Why are so many teammates suddenly running into each other? And why are those incidents leading to confrontation?
And is it worse when it’s two teammates involved in a feud or rivalry?
It’s happening because, well, because everyone is running into each other these days.
Double-file restarts, multiple green-white-checker restarts and a new car configuration that has increased competition have made Sprint Cup racing more intense than ever.
When the field lines up double-file for a two-lap dash to the finish, anything can happen. And this year, it has, causing some controversial wrecks and some hot tempers.
Two of the most intense incidents involved Jeff Burton getting into the face of Kyle Busch on pit road at the end of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and Joey Logano – and his dad – going after Kevin Harvick at Pocono.
But that’s natural – they aren’t teammates.
When it’s two teammates that get into each other, things are getting even more heated and leading to some unnatural rivalries.
Because drivers don’t expect to get run over, or into, by their own teammate.
Busch was furious after the All-Star Race when Hamlin blocked him during a late battle for the lead and forced him into the wall. Busch said he expected different treatment from his teammate, a notion that Hamlin scoffed at.
Two weeks later, Allmendinger tried to block Kahne at the end of the race at Pocono, forcing Kahne into the grass and causing him to spin, setting off a chain-reaction crash.
Kahne was upset with Allmendinger, but so were others.
“I don’t know what his deal is. He totally caused that whole thing,” Greg Biffle said of Allmendinger. “You can’t run a guy down on the grass. You can’t run your teammate down onto the grass. That is horrible.”
Drivers expect their teammates to race them differently than other drivers. They expect to race each other clean, with no bumping and banging, and to give each other more room than they would another driver.
That’s why Gordon was furious with Johnson twice this season after the two went head to head in a pair of races.
“I certainly think that you have to be more careful with your teammates than you do with anybody else,” says Jeff Burton, whose run-in with Busch, a non-teammate, was rare.
“Although, I do believe that you drive everybody the way that you would expect to be driven, it’s easier to make a teammate mad than it is somebody else. … When it happens with a teammate, you expect more and it’s easier to get your feelings hurt.
“Teammates get mad at each other more often than your competition does because I think the expectation is that they’re going to cut you some more slack, and when they don’t, it makes you mad.”
Johnson got a kick out of the Busch-Hamlin feud, which features some verbal jabs and harsh words the following week, because it took the heat off him and Gordon, who, until then, had created the most high-profile feud of the season.
"With the teammate situation, it’s so much fun to watch it take place, and to hear what goes on. But when you’re living it, it sucks,” Johnson said.
A feud between teammates tend to attract more media attention because it is rare and somewhat unnatural. It also tends to create more controversy because it can cause turmoil within a team.
“Everybody wants to know what’s going on,” Johnson said. “But to walk into microphones and think for a few days how you need to handle what you want to say, and you say your statements and you don’t know how they’re going to be received or what people are going to think or what your teammate is going to say or how it’s going to be received, there is distraction that takes place.
“It’s certainly fun to watch, and I know we entertained a lot of people a few races back when Jeff and I were going through our thing, but it’s a tough environment as teammates and racing for wins. I guess it shows that it doesn’t matter what organization you drive for or who the teammates are, you’re seeing what we want week in and week out. We want to win races.”
When a feud does erupt between teammates, drivers say they must work to resolve the dispute quickly so that it won’t affect both teams or the entire organization.
“I think it is easier to handle stuff with teammates because you have to work with them,” said Carl Edwards, who had a run-in with Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth a few years ago.
“You have to put it behind you. … That is the way it has always been with me. You come out of it stronger, better friends and better teammates.”
“I think those instances make a team stronger,” Johnson said at Charlotte. “A month from now, Denny and Kyle will probably say that they’re stronger or smarter or have a better relationship because of it. I know that’s the way it’s been with Jeff and I."