In this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, one position could mean the difference between champion and also-ran. With so much on the line, it seems unlikely that a devious strategy such as team orders would play a role in determining the 2011 champion.
Or maybe not.
Team orders have been a controversial issue in other forms of racing, especially Formula One. Yet listening to some of the drivers on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, you have to wonder if NASCAR reached the point where team orders will become an ever-increasing issue.
Take a look at the controversy at the end of the Richmond race a few weeks ago and judge for yourself.
After discussing the need for a caution and giving constant updates on the battle between Gordon and Harvick for the lead, RCR's Paul Menard was told to switch to the second radio channel, then happened to spin off Turn 4 to bring out the caution.
Menard denied the claim.
NASCAR investigated the allegations.
End of story, right?
But fast-forward to the end of last weekend's race at Kansas Speedway, and there was another potential RCR controversy.
As Clint Bowyer was racing Kevin Harvick for position, team owner Richard Childress came over Bowyer's radio and told the team to switch to the second channel. Harvick eventually gained the position on his teammate and finished the day sixth, leaving the track one point behind Carl Edwards for the points lead.
While Childress said he was talking with crew chief Shane Wilson about specific changes to the car, he said, "Just use your own instinct on that and answer it yourself" when pressed on the issue.
"These guys are smart," Childress said, adding he would never tell his drivers what to do. "They all understand; Hendrick's guys understand what's going on, Roush's guys understand what's going on, everybody understands. You're not going to do nothing that's not legal or not right, but you're going to race hard for your company."
Harvick, sitting second in the Chase standings, said his teammates have been beneficial in helping with setups and "things on the race track" to help the No. 29 team win the championship, but would not discuss his teammates conceding positions on the track.
"Every point matters and you just race as hard as you can and see where it all falls at the end of the day," he said.
Hendrick Motorsports' Jeff Gordon said he will "consider" giving up a spot to teammate Jimmie Johnson only after he is mathematically eliminated from the championship, but not before that.
"(For) 20th place maybe, it's not worth (battling) for 20th-place," Gordon joked. "Certainly not for a top-five."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., also deep in the Chase standings, said he "knows what's on the line" for other guys in the championship battle.
While Childress' radio chatter seemed to raise questions, Earnhardt Jr. believe he is smart enough to make "the right decision when the time comes" without help from crew chief Steve Letarte or anyone else in the organization.
"I like to race, I like to race for every position – but at the same time, man, you do what you think is right and do what you think is the right choice at the time," he said. "It's just a case-by-case scenario. If we're running at the back and he needs a point, that might be reasonable to give him 24th."
Much like Gordon, however, when racing for a top-10, Earnhardt Jr. noted, "you've got to race hard for those positions" regardless.