The 2012 season is five weeks in and we are already seeing similar storylines to the previous year. We have the parity, with four different winners in five races in which every manufacturer has visited Victory Lane; strong starts from unexpected drivers like Martin Truex, Jr.; “feel good” stories such as now part-time driver Brian Vickers getting a top 5 in his only race this year; and disappointing starts from drivers expected to compete for the championship (see: Jeff Gordon). But one story that’s new, even with his Chase success is the strong start for defending champion Tony Stewart, winning a season-high two races already.
That’s right, Tony Stewart doing well is something unexpected. At least during Springtime: only two times previously, heading into 2012 had Smoke won a race in the first ten events of the year. But now, the three-time Sprint Cup champ has two races in the first five weeks, picking right up where he left off from his impressive playoff run last year: winning five of the final ten races en route to his third series title.
Despite the strong ending to 2011, many wondered whether Stewart could maintain his late-season form going into this year after it was announced shortly after Homestead that crew chief Darian Grubb’s services were no longer needed. It was a shocking announcement as Grubb — who claimed he had known of his pending dismissal since right before Charlotte — has proven to be a winning crew chief, going to Victory Lane previously with Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears, and now with Denny Hamlin. Taking Grubb’s position atop the pit box would be Steve Addington, who served as crew chief for former teammate Kyle Busch.
Addington brought over an accomplished resume, winning 16 races since becoming a Cup crew chief at the start of the 2005 season — 12 with Kyle Busch and four with his older brother Kurt. Despite Addington’s success, Stewart’s decision to release Grubb was still met with criticism, especially since the duo had just won the Sprint Cup. Just a month into the season, however, it appears that Stewart’s managerial skills should no longer be doubted as he continues to be on the hottest streak of his career. Now that Smoke, who typically doesn’t get going until the summer months, has figured out how to win early, the competition should be terrified about what’s in store later in the year, right?
If you don’t find the Stewart-Addington pairing interesting, it’s time that you do. In my “season review of Stewart’s 2011 campaign last winter,”:https://frontstretch.com/reviews/36620/ one of the issues I stressed was how he would fare with Addington. It has already been beat to the ground not just by me, but by anyone who talks about Stewart, but he has always been a slow starter. On the other hand, Addington has historically brought faster cars out to the track early in the season only to seemingly slow down towards the Chase. Of his now 18 career wins, only one of them has come during a Chase race, when Kurt Busch piloted the No. 22 Penske Dodge to Victory Lane last fall at Dover. However, after that win, the team failed to finish in the top 10 during the remaining seven races.
Perhaps the biggest example of how an Addington-led team loses its momentum in the final weeks was in 2008, when he was calling the shots for Kyle Busch. They flat out dominated the regular season, winning eight times in the first 26 races to clinch the number one seed going into the Chase. Things then immediately fell apart with finishes of 34th and 43rd in the first two races, and the team never recovered. A fourth-place finish at Charlotte would turn out to be the only top 5 in a disappointing 10th-place points result. Interestingly enough, tenth happens to be the highest a driver has finished in the standings with Addington as the head wrench.
Of course, it may be wrong to place the blame on the crew chief in this instance. After all, he has had to put up with two of the most outspoken and temperamental drivers on the circuit week in and week out for the past four years. That right there should be considered a task in itself to keep the Busch brothers calm. While Stewart has proven to be no saint on the radio at times, he has matured over the years and even his bad moments pale in comparison to what the brothers Busch shout on the radio.
Unfortunately for Addington, history elsewhere shows that some blame should be placed on him. Prior to becoming a crew chief in Sprint Cup, he spent several years in the Nationwide Series, where he spent six seasons calling the shots for Jason Keller. The tandem picked up nine wins (Addington’s only other win came with Mike Bliss in 2004), and finished top 10 in points every year that they ran full-time, two of which where runner-up results. However, even with a mild-mannered driver in Keller, they were at their best early in the season, with none of those wins coming in the final ten races.
That’s what makes this pairing with Stewart so interesting. He has already benefited the driver of the Office Depot / Mobil 1 Chevy with a strong start, but now it will be up to Stewart later in the year — when it matters even more — to show the world that Addington can bring winning cars to the track in the final weeks. There’s no better driver at closing out the year than Stewart, and if they fade during the Chase, we will know for sure who is to blame.
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