Talladega Superspeedway saw the return of the two-car tandem. Which meant the return of racers finding the best partner to draft with. Of course, even in pack racing, the drivers had to decide who was fast and who wasn’t. But the two-car tandem meant those decisions had to be made before the race.
Most drivers chose teammates to draft with.
Ford took it one step further. Early in the weekend, Tony Stewart had chosen David Gilliland as his drafting partner. That quickly changed as Ford issued its “no other manufacturers” edict to all of its drivers. Because there is a championship at stake, Ford wanted to be absolutely certain that they wouldn’t see any of their drivers pushing a Chevrolet (or Dodge, or Toyota). Stewart was left scrambling to find a new partner and eventually wound up drafting with his teammate, Ryan Newman
In essence, Ford elected to put team orders out on the table for everyone to see. They’ve always existed in NASCAR (whether teams, drivers, and officials admit to it or not), but it’s rarely been such a blatant show. Especially by a manufacturer.
It turns out, this heavy-handed decision by Ford would play a major role late in the race.
Jeff Gordon found himself without a drafting partner after a wreck that started with Mark Martin. After having drafted with Trevor Bayne at Daytona (and eventually pushing him to the win in the 500), Gordon felt he’d be a good choice as a replacement. He claims that he didn’t think Bayne would agree to drafting with him, but chose to ask anyway. According to reports during the race, Gordon was initially told that Bayne would be his drafting partner only if Gordon agreed to push. This was later changed to Bayne agreeing to be the pusher. That all changed when David Ragan’s engine blew.
Ragan had been partnered with Matt Kenseth all day. With his engine blown, he needed a new drafting partner. That partner turned out to be Trevor Bayne, who then left Gordon high and dry.
After the race, Bayne took to Twitter saying:
@tbayne21: I’m not happy about what this has become… It’s too premeditated. We should be able to go with whoever is around (us)
@tbayne21: I would have rather pulled over and finished last than tell @JeffGordonWeb I would work with him and then be strong armed into bailing
The “strong-arm” tweet has since been deleted. And Trevor Bayne has learned a valuable lesson about racing politics: Never cross your teammates, your owner, or your manufacturer. Bayne has been virtually hung out to dry by everyone involved in Sunday’s decision. Matt Kenseth took to Twitter to say that he wasn’t aware of anything that went down and he certainly didn’t strong-arm Bayne. RFR has stated that they gave no team orders to Bayne.
Jack Roush even issued this statement Tuesday morning:
At Roush Fenway Racing we expect our individual drivers to make decisions that put themselves in the best position to win each and every race. That is a philosophy that we have lived by for over two decades, and one that we will continue to abide by going forward.
Of course, as in any team, we would prefer for our drivers to work together when possible. However, to be clear, we did not micromanage or dictate to any of our drivers, nor any other Ford drivers, how to race with other drivers at Talladega last Sunday. There are unique codes that all drivers establish and have to live by on the track. How they manage their code is up to our drivers as individuals.
This weekend, there were no team orders, from myself or anyone at Roush Fenway, given to any of our drivers as to whom they could or could not choose to run with or assist, nor did I give similar directions or suggestion to any of the other Ford drivers.
I’ve spoken with Trevor and understand that he was put in a situation requiring a split-second decision on the track and in his response to questions justifying his actions afterwards, where it was almost certain that not everyone was going to be satisfied.
Trevor is extremely talented, but it is still very early in his career. Over time he will grow to understand that in such a high-paced, competitive and hostile environment it is unlikely that all of his decisions will make everyone happy. I’m confident in his decision making, his ability and actions on the track, and I’m excited as we continue to move forward with his development.
In the end, Bayne had no choice but to retract the “strong-armed” statement and attempt to come up with an alternate explanation. In an interview with Scene Daily’s Bob Pockrass, Bayne said, “That probably wasn’t the right word to use – ‘strong-armed’ probably wasn’t. But at the time, I was pretty upset because I wanted to go try to win that race. And I knew that doing that probably wasn’t going to give us the best result, but I had to do it.”
He also told SiriusXM’s Morning Drive:
He came on my radio and I said, ‘Who’s this?’ He said, ‘It’s Jeff Gordon, man. You gonna work with us or what?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure! That’d be awesome!’ I mean, since I was 5 years old, I’ve dreamed about racing Jeff Gordon trying to go for a win and trying to beat him. So I’m like pumped about it.
Obviously, if a Ford needs help, I have to go with him. I probably should have said that to him at the time. I took it for granted, because there were two laps to go and everybody had a teammate. I was just ready to go work with Jeff.
We took the green flag, and the 6 car blew up. When the 6 car blows up, Matt Kenseth pulls up to our bumper – and there’s a Ford in need, which we had committed to all week. We said, ‘If a Ford needs us, we’re going to go help him.’ That’s just common sense that any team would do.
It’s not somebody saying, ‘Hey, don’t work with anybody else,’ it’s not a team saying, ‘Go make arrangements and then leave somebody.’ It wasn’t premeditated. It’s not like Jack Roush came on the radio and said, ‘Hey, go tell Jeff you’ll work with him, and then leave him.’ It was none of that. It was the fact that all of the sudden, with two laps to go, there was a Ford on our bumper and he didn’t have a drafting partner.
At that point, it’s a tough decision. I had given Ford my word all week long, and then you’ve got Jeff Gordon, who you want to work and just talked to about working with – and everything changes in a matter of a lap. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had come up in my whole career.
Jeff and I are fine. He said, ‘Hey, my fans are going to take it hard on you, but you and I are good. You’re a good kid and I understand the situation you were put in.’
I hate how it turned out, because I would have loved nothing more than to try to go up there and win that race with Jeff Gordon.
Lesson learned for Bayne. The hard way. Next time, he’ll likely have very little to say (if anything at all). He now knows where he stands and what it means to be a part of one of the biggest teams in motorsports. Thanks to Bayne, and standing team orders that aren’t technically team orders, other young drivers have also learned a valuable lesson about the politics of racing.