Addington's future with Busch uncertain
Kurt Busch heard the whispers about his crew chief, Steve Addington, leaving Penske Racing long before reports popped up on the Internet last Thursday.
For weeks, word had circulated around the garage that Addington was headed to Stewart-Haas Racing to become Tony Stewart’s crew chief. Stewart and Addington worked at Joe Gibbs Racing previously, along with Joey Logano's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, who is also rumored to be headed to SHR to fill the role vacated by Bobby Hutchens earlier this year.
Zipadelli still has a year remaining on his contract at JGR. Addington is at the end of a two-year contract; however, there’s a one-year option that belongs to Penske Racing.
So before NASCAR’s Sprint Cup tour rolled into Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday, Busch had dinner with Addington on Monday to discuss his status along with the team’s. Busch was given a completely different response from Addington than what the rumor mill might suggest.
“We talked about how our crew guys feel. We talked about how we thought some guys might be leaving and where we needed to fill in holes, who we needed to make our team stronger with. Then we talked about us and where we stand and what we needed to do to get through these next — at the time — six races. And he told me that he’s talked with Roger (Penske) and Roger said, ‘Right now, I don’t want you to worry about your contract. I want you guys to go worry about this Chase.’
“And that’s where it stood. And Steve said, 'Alright. Let’s talk about it when we can afterwards.' And that’s what I had confirmed to me by (Penske Racing president Tim) Cindric. I wish that this stuff could have been done in September before the Chase started, but it didn’t work out that way with IndyCar season and everything else. Right now, what Roger is telling me is that they have Steve’s option for next year. So he can’t just get up and leave. It's crazy, just crazy.”
This distraction could not have come at a worse time for Busch. Penske Racing is enjoying by far its best season in Sprint Cup since expanding to two teams. Although the company won more races in 2003 when Ryan Newman went on a tear and took eight races and 11 poles, his teammate Rusty Wallace went winless and finished 14th in the standings. Both teams qualified for the Chase in 2005, but Wallace went winless again.
NASCAR’s boutique operation of Busch and Brad Keselowski has collected five victories, and both drivers have been competitive in the Chase. That number is on par with Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Busch credits part of the company’s success to Penske’s decision to move Travis Geisler into the role of racing competition director. Geisler, a former racer himself who was promoted to crew chief for Sam Hornish at 27, has become a liaison for the two teams. The 30-year-old Pittsburgh native has the perfect balance of engineering knowledge and congeniality that makes him the ideal candidate for that role.
“Travis has flourished in his role,” Busch said. “He has fit into it brilliantly, and he’s taken the lead. The confidence that he shows blends right in with the two crew chiefs and the department heads. I give him all the credit in the world for helping to steer this program in the right direction.”
But strangely enough, the rumors of Addington’s departure began circulating in earnest after Busch’s win at Dover — an accomplishment that vaulted NASCAR’s 2004 champion from ninth to fourth in the point standings. An ill-timed caution at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night knocked Busch off the lead lap when Trevor Bayne ran out of gas. Although Busch recovered to finish 13th at Charlotte, he dropped to seventh in the point standings.
Busch understands that it will take luck and performance to win the title. Under the circumstances of Busch’s last championship — when a wheel rolled off of his car and he barely missed hitting the pit road wall in the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway in 2004 — good fortune fell his way. Busch came back, finished fifth and won the title by eight points over Jimmie Johnson.
But there’s no doubt that distractions can be detrimental to a team. Busch had hoped the drama could have waited until after the season was over. He went through a similar situation in 2009 when it was announced that then-crew chief Pat Tryson was leaving at the end of the season — and the team still persevered.
“I’ve been through this before, I heard Pat Tryson leaving before the Chase started,” Busch said. “We knew he was leaving, and look at the success we found. Hell, if we don’t wreck at Talladega, I finish second overall in the standings in 2009. It’s not that we’re getting distracted by it, but why do we have to keep taking low blows? Every time you win, someone wants to take you down.
“We just don’t need to create this kind of (expletive) storm during the Chase and calling out certain people because I’m never going to win that battle — I know that. But when people can throw out random rumors when they don’t have a leg to stand on, it's like, 'Wow, why do we have to put up with this?'
So far, Addington has declined comment.
Busch acknowledges that his reputation on the radio has a tendency to cloud people’s perception of the tenor on his race team. Busch says his team remains supportive and there’s been very little turnover with the actual crew. With five races to go, the best Busch can hope for is that the team continues to pull together and concentrate on the prize at hand — the Sprint Cup.
“Right now we have our blinders on,” Busch said. “It’s almost like Terry Francona at the Red Sox. He knew he had to get to the end of the year. And Monday morning after the season is over he’s on TMZ and all these different channels trying to find out whether he’s going to be the manager or not. Was there truth to those rumors? Until a statement comes out, we don’t know. Before then, it’s just speculation.”