Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Saturday October 15, 2011
The rumor mill was churning in Charlotte, and at the center of the storm on Friday was the No 22 team, a current Chase contender with driver Kurt Busch. Speculation swirled around crew chief Steve Addington and whether he has already planned a departure at season’s end, possibly to Stewart-Haas Racing as crew chief for Danica Partrick. Addington denied the rumor, but a Penske spokesman wasn’t exactly vehement in his statement.
“We make it a practice to not comment on rumors and speculation,” said team Spokesman Jonathan Gibson “Our team’s focus is on winning this weekend’s race and, ultimately, the championship.”
That sounds more like a “no comment” than a denial, and even if there is nothing to the rumors, can Busch contend for the Sprint Cup title with the eyes of the garage on his team for the wrong reason?
Although it’s not fair to pin the team’s performance solely on the rumor mill, the No. 22 doesn’t look like a championship contender, even after winning at Dover two weeks ago. Racing is still a game of consistency, and that is one thing Busch and his team have lacked this year. While only 16 points out of the lead, the team hasn’t been able to maintain the top finishes. Busch finished 13th in Kansas, coming back from a lap down, but never cracked the top 10, and the week before his win, Busch managed just a 22nd-place finish.
But here’s the thing: it’s pretty hard to believe that an as-of-yet unconfirmed rumor could be any more detrimental to the team than Busch’s attitude. By now everyone has heard Busch’s radio tirades to Addington and his crew, laden with expletives and the occasional colorful phrase, such as the now-infamous time that Busch compared the teams performance to “a monkey ****ing a football.” While the line certainly provided fodder for fans and media, it didn’t help the team diagnose the problem with the car. While deriding the team could have been meant as a motivator, giving the correct information to the team instead would have been a lot more beneficial as far as fixing the problem.
There’s no denying that Kurt Busch is a hard-nosed driver, and an exceptionally talented one. But he is also a hard-headed driver, and that could, ultimately, play a larger role in the way his career will be remembered. Intensely aggressive, Busch has not always been able to put his emotions aside in favor of the bigger picture. That means a few things. First, it distracts Busch from giving his team useable information which would help them improve the car during races. Busch is often more focused on telling his team how terrible the car is—without telling them why. That leads to a guessing game for the next adjustment, and if that doesn’t do the trick, draws Busch into a vicious cycle and ruins the team’s chances in the race.
Busch’s volatile, emotional nature also makes him vulnerable to other drivers. Not in the racecar, where Busch will be aggressive no matter how badly the car is handling, but in his head. That was never more evident than at Richmond, on the eve of the Chase, when Busch and Jimmie Johnson ignited an old feud. Johnson took the brunt of it, but Busch was clearly rattled. He stated in his postrace television interview that he felt that he was in Johnson’s head, only to deny that he ever made the statement in a press conference that immediately followed. When shown the transcript of his previous comment, Busch’s response was to tear the paper in half and stalk out of the room. And while Busch might have said that he was in Johnson’s head, it was completely apparent that it was the opposite. And it wasn’t because Johnson was playing head games with Busch, it was because Busch lost a head game with himself.
Busch and Johnson are a study in contrasts. Johnson rarely berates his team on the radio; if he does, it’s not in the same vitriolic manner as Busch. This allows Johnson his real advantage: he communicates his car accurately, without blame or emotion, lap after lap, so by the time an adjustment is needed, it’s more likely to be the right one. And Johnson lets nobody in his head. Even when he’s racing Busch harder than is strictly necessary, he keeps his cool. That unflappable nature has helped bring Johnson five championships. Busch has one, but he’s talented enough to have more.
Which leads us back to Addington. Addington is Busch’s eighth crew chief in a ten-year Cup career. Addington came to Busch’s team after serving as crew chief for a driver almost as volatile—Busch’s own brother, Kyle, who has also been known to say things to his crew that he might later forget. But if anything, Kurt Busch is worse in the way he treats his crew and his crew chief. His ill-thought-out tirades don’t help, and he and the team know it. But he’s got talent in spades, which means that when it comes time to evaluate things, it’s often the crew chief who ends up on the hot seat for not getting the cars right when he might have had Busch been able to give him more data in a timely, calm fashion. At the end, it’s the crew chief who didn’t make the right call, and even if that doesn’t lead to an outright dismissal, it has to make some of those guys want to head for greener and kinder pastures.
With that, the vicious cycle is complete: the driver’s emotions get the best of him, he doesn’t give the correct information, the crew chief can’t make the car better with limited feedback, making the driver angrier and the communication less effective, and on and on. In the end, because the driver is so very talented, it’s the crew chief who takes the fall. Whether the crew chief is fired or chooses to walk away doesn’t matter, because a new one at the helm just makes it even harder on everyone involved. There’s a learning curve on communication and on car setups, but that doesn’t change the driver’s behavior, and so the cycle begins anew.
What it comes down to is that the real distraction for the No. 22 team might not be that Addington may be seeking a new home for his talents but rather a driver who perpetuates a cycle of vitriol and self-destruction. If the team doesn’t win the title, it won’t be because of a garage rumor. It will be because the driver let the world get in his head.
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