The biggest news of this week, and most likely the entire year, is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s announcement that he will become teammates with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears under Hendrick Motorsports starting next season.
Much of NASCAR Nation is in shock. They are asking, how can Junior be teammates with former rivals Gordon and Johnson? How will it affect his fans and the way they think not only of Gordon and Johnson, but of Earnhardt himself?
These are all to be determined, but the uproar brings to light a question many NASCAR newcomers were probably wondering anyway. What does it mean to have teammates in a mostly individual sport? Aren't a driver's true teammates the guys on his pit crew? If Gordon wins a race, Johnson doesn't. If Johnson wins the championship, Gordon doesn't. So how exactly does the word teammate apply?
It applies, big time.
Not so long ago, an owner was lucky if he could find enough talented people to fill out one team. His crew consisted mostly of former mechanics who would do everything at the shop and the racetrack. Teams would pick up extra people to fill out their pit crew when they got to the track. One owner in the 1980s even used an airline ticket agent as his gas man. Why? Because his gas man could then help the other part timers on his crew fly around cheaply to all the races.
But as more and more money came into the sport, a lot of that money went into getting a competitive edge, and before long every team had specialists on staff both at the track and back at the shop. And it didn't take long for teams to realize they could get more for their money by sharing information.
Teams today hire machinists, body and paint shop guys, car builders, car rebuilders, engine guys, gear and transmission guys, suspension guys, spring-and-shock guys, as well as testing engineers. That represents a lot of different ways to affect a race car. If one owner can hire multiple guys to work together in any area, they can get improved results, especially when it comes to testing.
Imagine if one classroom was given an assignment by their teacher, while across the hall two classrooms were working together on the same assignment. Which would be more likely to come up with the solution first? Then imagine four classrooms, each with stellar students, tackling the assignment.
This is what you get by having teammates. Ken Willis has been covering NASCAR since the early 1980s for the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
"It's not just a matter of a three-car team having a testing advantage over a two-car team, or a four-car team over a three-car team, etc.," Willis said. "Nowadays, you have the big teams like Hendrick and Roush providing engines for the smaller teams, and that provides even more testing info. Better yet, while they all field cars in the Busch and (Craftsman) truck series (Nextel Cup's two main feeder series), they also now field ARCA teams (or fund them) in order to gather all that extra info from tests and races."
If it sounds like corporate America in the 1980s, it's because there are many similarities. The legendary Dale Earnhardt fought it tooth and nail, but it became inevitable when multicar teams started dominating. Hendrick Motorsports has won 10 of the 14 races this season. Roush Motorsports has had similar runs of domination in recent years.
"I remember how much a guy like Dale Earnhardt resisted going to a two-car team at Childress when they brought along Mike Skinner to be his teammate," Willis said. "If he knew how many tentacles the top teams have nowadays, it would probably irritate him greatly. But within a week or two, he'd see the writing on the wall and join the necessary trend, assuming he wanted to be competitive."
Perhaps that writing on the wall is what told his son that if you can't out-test them, join them.