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When teammates are battling on track, discretion usually wins out

RICHARD DURRETT • Apr 7, 2007 at 9:48 AM

DALLAS - This teammate thing in motorsports can sure get complicated.

Jeff Gordon could have won last weekend's race at Martinsville Speedway.

He had the better car - thanks to fresher tires - and was glued to Jimmie Johnson's bumper in the final few laps. He would have had to spin Johnson out, probably wrecking him on the tight track, to get the victory.

That's not unusual in this sport. Winning is the No. 1 goal. Whether it's fair to wreck a competitor to win a race can be debated after you celebrate in victory lane.

But when it comes to teammates, there's a different mentality.

Gordon did everything he could to get past Johnson. But he wasn't going to ruin owner Rick Hendrick's day by sending Johnson into the wall and out of the race.

"I think everybody in the organization realizes that if we have a situation where one of the cars takes the other guy out, it is going to unravel a lot of hard work we have put into this year," Hendrick said. "So you just cross your fingers and hope everybody keeps them straight."

Gordon tried to get around Johnson but couldn't. Johnson, knowing Gordon probably wasn't going to wreck him, drove his line and blocked him as best he could.

"Without wrecking him, there was no way I was going to get it done," Gordon said.

"I couldn't get clear enough of him where he wasn't going to come back and run into the back of me, and that's not how I want to race my teammate. I felt like he did really what he needed to do, but I think (if) anybody else had been in second but me, he probably wouldn't have won the race." Teammates are a strange and necessary element to the Nextel Cup circuit. At its core, racing is about one driver and one crew trying to race faster than everybody else. But to be competitive consistently, teams need help. They need to share information and talk about what works and doesn't work in tests and practices.

Johnson, in fact, was awful in practice before the race last weekend. Desperate for help, his team mimicked the setup of Gordon's car, giving Johnson new life. So Gordon helping Johnson may have cost him the race.

But at some point this season, the roles could be reversed and Gordon could benefit.

One person owning more than one car isn't a new phenomenon. Carl Kiefhaefer sometimes had three teams in the 1950s, though NASCAR officials said he changed drivers often. Junior Johnson ran full-time multiple teams beginning in 1985 with Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnett. Hendrick had three teams for many races before going fulltime with a trio of cars in 1993 when Gordon joined his organization. Jack Roush joined the multi-team party in 1992 and expanded to five teams in 1998. But teammates in motor sports differ from those in other individual sports. Speedskaters and even distance runners may use each other for drafting help, but once the race winds down it's everyone for himself or herself. Two golfers may have the same coach, but it doesn't change how they play. One can't step on the other's golf ball or do anything to prevent the other from making a great shot. But on the racetrack, you can win by wrecking someone in front of you. Juan Pablo Montoya did it to teammate Scott Pruett in the Busch race in Mexico last month. But Fellow driver Greg Biffle said Tuesday that wrecking someone is the cheap way out.

"It doesn't take any ability to crash the guy in front of you," Biffle said. "Anybody can do it. The rule I have is that he doesn't spin out. If you get in there and give him the nudge and he's up in the dirt trying to get a hold of it and get going again, more power to you. That's still dirty, but that's the way it is."

That's the way it is unless that other guy is your teammate.

ON THE MEND: Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Wednesday that Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, his sister and business manager, is recovering from surgery and should soon be returning to work - which includes trying to get a new contract for her brother with Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Elledge had surgery March 23 to remove a benign tumor near her pancreas.

"She's out of the woods, so to speak, and we're all really, really happy about that," Earnhardt said.

BRIEFLY: International Speedway Corp. has dropped a $368 million proposal to build a racetrack near Seattle. But the company said it hasn't given up on the state of Washington. ... Hendrick Motorsports has had a fantastic start to the season. A Hendrick driver has won the past four Nextel Cup races, including both Car of Tomorrow events. Three of Hendrick's four drivers are in the top five in the point standings - Gordon first, Johnson third and Kyle Busch fifth.

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