- Associated Press - Thursday, September 15, 2011

CHICAGO (AP) - Allegations of team orders swirled Thursday around the opening round of NASCAR’s championship race, with Jeff Gordon alleging Richard Childress Racing intentionally caused a caution at Richmond that helped Kevin Harvick win the race.

Gordon was leading Harvick in Saturday night’s race when RCR driver Paul Menard spun with 16 laps to go. The drivers pitted, Harvick was first off pit road and pulled away on the restart four laps later.

Harvick went on to win his fourth race of the season, which tied him with Kyle Busch for the top seed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. It was a big swing for Gordon, who was denied his fourth victory and trails the leaders by three points for Sunday’s opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway.

“If any of that is true of what’s being speculated right now, all I can say is I’ve lost a lot of respect for Paul Menard if that’s the case,” Gordon said Thursday during a media tour of the 12 Chase drivers.

“I don’t want to blame him for any of that if it’s not true. He might have just lost it off of turn four and the caution came out. But when you listen to the radio, and I’ve had other people translate it to me, it sounds a little fishy.”

Gordon said he’s not personally heard the radio transmission, and there doesn’t appear to be concrete evidence to prove the allegation. Radio chatter between Menard and his team that was played this week on Speed Channel indicated there was a moment the group switched to an encrypted frequency before Menard spun.

A spokesman for RCR said the organization had no comment on Gordon’s claim. But Harvick said he made internal inquiries and has been told a flat tire on Menard’s car caused him to spin.

“Everything that I’ve heard about the situation was the right rear tire was down to the cords,” Harvick said. “I guess I wish I could have brought it with me. Obviously when a situation like that happens, that’s going to be the first thing that people migrate to.

“That’s really all I know about the whole thing. I asked what the deal was and that was the answer I received.”

The allegation is just the latest sideshow to what’s expected to be the most competitive Chase to date. Earlier in the race, five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson intentionally wrecked Kurt Busch and the two traded barbs afterward. It led to a tense postrace news conference and scrutiny of Busch for losing his cool.

Meanwhile, two-time champion Tony Stewart said Thursday there’s only seven real title contenders. The five who Stewart doesn’t think have a chance? Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, and, most surprisingly, himself.

There’s always the potential for something explosive to happen between co-points leaders Kyle Busch and Harvick, who openly dislike each other and each spent a stint on probation this season for an altercation at Darlington. And now Harvick, who loves to be in the center of controversy, has been caught up in the Gordon versus RCR allegations.

In typical Harvick fashion, when asked about the Menard caution, he shifted it right back to Gordon and the Hendrick Motorsports organization.

“There’s 10 times during the race that you could say that the Hendrick cars were spinning people out or doing what they had to do to keep Dale Jr. on the lead lap,” Harvick said. “You could make the same allegations throughout the whole race that they were trying to help him do the same thing, stay in the lead lap and get in the Chase.”

Gordon denied that HMS has ever used team orders in any situation or to help Earnhardt.

“When has that ever happened? We’ve never done anything to try to get Junior on the lead lap, if he was down a lap, to my knowledge,” Gordon said. “I’ve never spun out, I’ve never been told to spin out or brought out a caution that changed the entire (race). If I am a teammate to someone that’s going for the championship, I would make it a little more challenging for them if it comes down for the championship, to a certain degree.

“But I am always one that says let the race be decided the way it needs to be decided.”

Other drivers weren’t sure what to make of the controversy. The issue has always been possible, especially since the Chase format was introduced in 2004. But team owner Jack Roush, who once had five drivers in the Chase field, angrily denied his organization would manipulate races and the drivers want to believe the 10-race title series has been decided fairly.

“I don’t even want to think about it happening because I pride myself on racing the guys and everybody racing everybody fair,” Stewart said. “I hope we never have to worry about that.”

“I think we all hope that those kinds of things really don’t happen,” added Matt Kenseth. “I’ve had teammates in the past help me as far as leading a lap and passing them easier, things like that. But certainly nothing like that.”

Harvick disagreed and pointed specifically to last year’s season finale at Homestead, when he was racing Hamlin and Johnson for the championship. He said Hamlin teammate Kyle Busch and Johnson teammate Mark Martin consistently made it difficult for him on the race track.

“It always comes up. It came up last year with myself and Kyle, I felt like he was doing what he had to do and Mark was doing what he had to do to help Jimmie,” Harvick said. “Guys, you feel like they race you different than they have all year just because of their teammates racing for the championship. It’s not going to be anything different this year.

“It’s always going to be a constant debate of the way it all goes down and who it is. You could argue it over every year.”

Gordon said NASCAR doesn’t want it to play out that way, and doesn’t think teams who participate in the practice will still be in the running for the title at the end of the year.

“I know NASCAR doesn’t want races and championships to be decided in that form and I put my faith in them that they’ll try to control those situations,” Gordon said. “Whatever happened, whatever was intentional, unintentional … we can’t control that. It doesn’t affect what we’re going to be doing over the next 10 weeks. If we get beat by three points, I’ll be a little disappointed.”

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