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Fans of Formula 1 and some other motorsports might be familiar with the term “team orders.” It refers to motorsports teams creating a kind of pecking order within their group, where certain members of the team will receive priority over others during a particular race. One driver might be instructed to make way for his teammate to allow them to have a better position, for instance.
NASCAR officially bans team orders, but they persist in the sport. Despite rules and penalties, teams strategize for collective benefit, leading to ongoing debate about the impact on racing integrity and authenticity. The complex dynamics within teams and manufacturers contribute to the continued prevalence of team orders in NASCAR.
In today’s article, we’re going to look at whether or not this phenomenon exists within NASCAR, and if so, what it means for the sport as well as a little on the background and thoughts of drivers on team orders.
Does NASCAR Allow Team Orders?
The short answer is “officially, no, but in reality, yes.” Officially speaking, there are no team orders in NASCAR because the practice is banned. Teams have been fined and drivers penalized — and much to their detriment with regards to championship placement, in some cases — for violating what NASCAR calls its “100-percent rule.”
This rule states that all drivers must give 100 percent effort to win all of the time during any given race. However, despite the bans, the practice does appear to be alive and well among NASCAR teams.
The issue of team orders in NASCAR goes beyond drivers in the same team. NASCAR even has to contend with the issue of so-called “manufacturer orders” where drivers from different teams, but with the same manufacturer (Chevy, Ford, or Toyota) would create plans to freeze out drivers of other cars.
The sad news is that there are so many real examples from past races that clearly demonstrate the practice of team orders not only still goes on in the modern era, but also isn’t anything new. There are some who might naively think that team orders are something restricted to Formula 1 or MotoGP, but they’d be very, very wrong.
Perhaps the best-known and even the most infamous case of team orders in NASCAR happened during the 2013 Federated Auto Parts 400 at the Richmond International Raceway in Virginia. At this time, drivers were competing for points under what was known as the Chase system — aka Chase for the Sprint Cup.
A total of 12 drivers were eligible (the top 10 point scorers, and 2 wild cards), but controversy reigned during the final 10 laps of this race as some teams conspired to create the most ideal result for themselves.
Five teams emerged as contenders for the final 2 top-10 spots, as well as the two wild card spots, but not all of these teams would be willing to play fair, especially Penske, Front Row, and most of all Michael Waltrip Racing.
During the race, Logano (Penske) apparently communicated with a fellow Ford driver (from Front Row) to create a scheme that would allow him to move out of his struggling position and secure a spot in the Chase.
Not to be outdone, drivers from Michael Waltrip Racing got in on the action, with Clint Bowyer intentionally spinning out of the race — hence, “Spingate” — to allow his teammate Martin Truex Jr. to advance and gain a spot in the Chase in the resulting caution period.
The plan came unstuck, however, when ESPN aired recordings of communications between the drivers, which resulted in a NASCAR investigation, and some serious penalties for those involved, not to mention extensive rule changes in the sport.
Michael Waltrip Racing was fined $100,000 per car — a total of $300,000 — and as if that wasn’t bad enough, Truex Jr was docked 50 points, which cost him his place in the Chase, and allowed rivals like Ryan Newman who had been most affected by the ruse, to get back in.
The 2013 “Spingate” incident was a key moment in NASCAR developing its stance against team orders. It didn’t seem to matter during the race on November 1, 2020 at Martinsville Speedway, however, when audio was captured that seemed to quite clearly demonstrate team orders happening right under the noses of NASCAR officials.
During the race, two drivers from Joe Gibbs racing, namely Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin, were apparently issued team orders to create a better result in the race. There were 15 laps to go, with Hamlin in 12th position, and Jones just behind him in 13th.
This race was right before the Championship 4 in the NASCAR playoffs, so a great deal was at stake. Hamling was leading Brad Keselowski in the standings by a single point, and two points ahead of Kevin Harvick. Hamlin would have to hold his position at least in order to hold off his competitors and secure a place in the Championship 4.
It was at this moment when the crew chief for Joe Gibbs Racing, Chris Gayle, came on the radio and said to Erik Jones: “(Hamlin is) going to race you hard because he needs to, because it’s within like three points on those guys. Just so you’re aware.” This might seem innocuous enough, but it was the subsequent chatter that was the most damning.
Jones responded to his crew chief, telling him that there was a “huge gap” behind him, but shortly after, one of the Joe Gibbs Racing spotters, Rick Carelli, came onto the same radio channel and said unequivocally: “ Don’t pass him, Jones. Stay with him and drive what you can.”
The result of the race was that Hamlin finished 11th and secured his place in the Championship 4 thanks to some additional crash-outs from other drivers.
In the case of the 2020 Martinsville Speedway incident, NASCAR took no action. This kind of behavior is all part of what leads some people to say that the sport is rigged on some level, and that the officials turn a blind eye because they are equally interested in creating good television and a good story.
The trouble is that one part of NASCAR’s rules to stamp out team orders includes one condition that teams are not allowed to use scrambled channels, and must instead use accessible analog channels for radio communication.
This means that all communication channels can be monitored, and team orders plucked out and hopefully dealt with as harshly and properly as the Spingate perpetrators. Alas, the 2020 result seems to indicate that things aren’t always so black and white in these kinds of rules.
In Formula 1, they lifted their 2002 ban in 2010 because too many teams found tricky ways around it, and perhaps that’s why NASCAR doesn’t take strong action anymore…it’s just a part of the wider game for the teams and manufacturers.
The Origins of Team Orders in NASCAR
To understand the prevalence of team orders in NASCAR today, it’s essential to trace their roots. Team orders have been an unofficial part of NASCAR since the sport’s inception in the late 1940s. Back then, it was common for teams to have one designated “lead” driver who was given priority and support from their teammates.
This strategy helped teams secure better overall results and, in turn, earn more prize money and prestige. As the sport evolved and grew in popularity, team orders continued to be a part of the racing culture, despite efforts to curb the practice.
The Impact of Team Orders on Fan Perception
The presence of team orders in NASCAR has led to mixed reactions among fans. Some argue that it’s just another strategic element of the sport, while others feel it undermines the competitive spirit and integrity of racing.
This divide has contributed to a broader debate about whether team orders are an acceptable part of NASCAR or if they should be eradicated to preserve the sport’s authenticity. Ultimately, fan perception plays a significant role in shaping NASCAR’s policies and enforcement of team orders.
Drivers’ Perspectives on Team Orders
Drivers themselves have varying opinions on the use of team orders in NASCAR. Some embrace the concept as an essential part of working together as a team, while others view it as an unwelcome intrusion into their individual efforts to compete and win.
The dynamic between teammates can be complex, with both camaraderie and rivalry playing a role. As a result, drivers may find themselves caught between their loyalty to their team and their desire to succeed as individual competitors. This tension adds another layer to the ongoing debate about the role of team orders in NASCAR racing.
team orders in NASCAR remain a contentious and divisive issue within the sport. While officially banned, the reality is that team orders continue to be practiced to varying degrees. The combination of historical precedent, differing opinions among fans and drivers, and the ever-present drive to secure victories and championships has made it difficult for NASCAR to completely eradicate the practice.
Despite attempts to enforce rules and penalties, teams and drivers will likely continue to find ways to work together and strategize for their collective benefit. The challenge for NASCAR is to strike a balance between preserving the competitive spirit and authenticity of the sport, while also acknowledging the complex dynamics at play within teams and manufacturers.
As long as the stakes remain high, the gray area of team orders in NASCAR will continue to be a subject of debate and controversy among fans, drivers, and officials alike.