NASCAR is a business built on chemistry. Owners have to mesh well with drivers, sponsors have to be a good fit for their pitch men, the pit crews have to work like a well-oiled machine and most importantly, crew chiefs and drivers have to blend into a harmonious one. There are some isolated incidents of teams in the past that have won a championship while the driver and crew chief were constantly at odds, but the vast majority of series champions have benefited from a crew chief who knew exactly what the driver needed often before the driver asked for it.
The No. 18 team looked like they were on that track at the beginning of last season, but completely disintegrated when the chips were down. This year followed a similar pattern, with even less success at the start of the year making it obvious to a man who knows chemistry, Joe Gibbs, that a change had to be made.
Kyle Busch has been at JGR for almost two seasons. After coming over from the Hendrick juggernaut in 2008, Busch lit the NASCAR world on fire early in the 2008 season with eight wins in the first 22 races. Going into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he was the odds on favorite to win the title, but it was not meant to be. Starting on the pole with qualifying rained out at Loudon, Busch came home 34th, 12 laps down. He headed into Dover still feeling like he had a chance to win the title, but that didn’t last long as 172 laps into the race his engine failed, and his title hopes went up in smoke.
Busch basically gave up on the title and finished 28th at Kansas the next week to put the final nail in the coffin of his 2008 championship run. While the Chase was a disappointment, the season was arguably a large success with eight wins, 17 top fives and 21 top 10s, and the team came into 2009 thinking a championship run was a forgone conclusion.
2009 didn’t start off very well with a 41st-place finish at Daytona, but the team rebounded with a third at California and then a win at Las Vegas. Unfortunately, the success of the previous year was much harder to capture and a slew of finishes worse than 20th doomed the team to the ultimate disappointment of the year, missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup. So far this season, Busch has logged four wins, nine top fives and 12 top 10s, basically half of his totals from last season despite another year of seasoning under his belt. While Busch is headed for a Nationwide title, his Cup Series success has slipped and the time for change has arrived.
Steve Addington has been on the top of the box for all of Busch’s races since he’s been at JGR, but his career for the Coach’s team started in 2004 when he came on board at JGR to crew chief the No. 20 car in the Nationwide Series. In one season on the box for the No. 20, Addington guided the team to a fifth-place finish in points and Mike Bliss’s first Nationwide win at Charlotte in October.
The next season he was promoted to the crew chief position for the No. 18 Cup car driven by Bobby Labonte. His first season in the Cup series saw a runner-up finish in the Coca Cola 600 and seven top-10 finishes. The following two seasons with JJ Yeley saw very little success with only five top-10 finishes and another runner-up finish in the Coca Cola 600 in 2007. When Busch was announced as the driver of the No. 18 for 2008, Addington was asked to remain as crew chief and given the goal of putting the car back in victory lane.
Addington achieved the goal in the fourth race of the season at Atlanta and followed it up at Talladega, Darlington, Dover, Sonoma, Daytona, Chicago and Watkins Glen. While their marriage had the early success in 2008, it slowly deteriorated and ultimately it came time to change the man on top of the box. No one will know if the disappointment of the Chase in 2008 ultimately doomed the relationship or not, but it certainly didn’t help.
The new man on the box is a name that is not unfamiliar to Busch. Dave Rogers is the crew chief for the No. 20 JGR Toyota in the Nationwide Series. He crew-chiefed the car to the Nationwide owners’ championship last season with nine victories, six poles, 16 top fives and 26 top-10 finishes, achieved with four different drivers in the car throughout the year.
In 1999 Rogers started out working with Greg Zipadelli and helped him guide the No. 20 Home Depot team to two championships between then and 2005. He was then given the crew chief duties when JGR started up the No. 11 Cup team. As with most new teams, the group struggled, and Rogers was back in the engineering department before the end of the season. He was given a second opportunity at the end of 2005 when Denny Hamlin asked him to be the crew chief of the No. 20.
Rogers has a mechanical engineering degree from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. and a master’s from the General Motors Institute. Whether Rogers has what it takes to make Kyle Busch the best of the best or if he’ll just be another crew chief who could win races but not the big one is yet to be seen. But there is no mistaking the fact that he knows how to win a championship and he certainly could make Busch a serious threat again to dethrone Jimmie Johnson.
Chemistry is a very important factor in this sport: Let’s see if the mixture of Rogers and Busch is like oil and water… or sugar and tea.