Thursday, December 29, 2011

Can Addington add another title for Stewart?

It's not uncommon for champions of any sport to either sit back or fight to stay the same. After all, if a formula can win once it can win again. And in NASCAR's case of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knauss it can win again, again, again, again and again.
And in the case of 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, it seems the fate of champion crew chief Darian Grubb was sealed before Stewart's dramatic run to the title. So, no doubt, it looks bad to see Stewart, the champion owner/driver, release Grubb, the champion crew chief. It just didn't seem to make sense.
And if Stewart and new crew chief Steve Addington struggle in the first 10 or so races of the 2012 season, everyone will be second-guessing Stewart's decision to make that change. It doesn't make sense, they will say. It's always easy to talk about that after the fact, so here's a try at first-guessing.
There are some questions we will never know the answer to. And there's one that not even Stewart or Grubb will ever be able to answer.
Question No. 1: If Grubb had not known his job security was in jeopardy, would he have performed at such a high level in those final races? Pressure can be a good thing or bad thing. Maybe in the case of Grubb, who will crew chief for Denny Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2012, he can say it was a good thing. Maybe Stewart would have won the title without that scenario. Maybe not. No one will ever really know.
Question No. 2: Is Addington a good fit for Stewart. With the relationship they had at Gibbs Racing, it certainly looks that way. They were able to be friends then probably because Addington was not crew chiefin' for a younger and sometimes more volatile Stewart back then. Now Addington gets a more mature and people-friendly Stewart, who seems to have embraced his owner/leadership role. Even an upset Stewart now would not rival the anger that Addington dealt with from Kurt or Kyle Busch, the two previous drivers he has been a crew chief for. Stewart's driver/owner combination will be a different dynamic to deal with, but can it really be any worse than dealing with Kurt Busch this past season?
Question No. 3: Can Addington win? Well, he does have 16 career NASCAR Sprint Cup victories. It's not as if this hire for Stewart was a reach, like he knows something that nobody else does. And if Addington helps Stewart win his first Daytona 500 next month, he'll earn a lot of patience from Stewart.
Question No. 4: What about a backup plan. Well, it's probably something Stewart won't admit to, and really doesn't want to use, but he does have his former crew chief Greg Zipadelli on his team now as competition director. Zipadelli, who led Stewart to Sprint Cup titles in 2002 and 2005, is also slated to be the crew chief for Danica Patrick for her seven scheduled Sprint Cup races this season. However, if things were to somehow fall apart between Addington and Stewart during the season, it would be hard to find a better crew chief security blanket than Zipadelli.
No one can say right now that Stewart's moves were genius. NASCAR's crystal ball just doesn't spin that way. If Stewart contends for the title, but doesn't win, no one will say it was a terrible move. If he doesn't make the Chase for the Championship they will say it was a terrible move. If he dominates the season and runs away with a second straight title, it will be a brilliant move.
But no matter what happens, you have to give Stewart credit for trying to move forward, rather than looking back.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Busch brother out of hand is worth ...

The question about Kurt and Kyle Busch is not do they need to mature? We all, and I think even they know, that yes, to continue on with any kind of future in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition, they do need to grow up at least a little bit.
But the question is will they?
The problem here, is if you talk with either of the Busch brothers in a calm quiet moment, they seem like quite normal guys. If you didn't know about their much-publicized tempers in NASCAR, they each can come across as ordinary and decent human beings. And for most of the hours in a week, or even a month, they are probably just that.
But somewhere in their makeup, or personality, there's an invisible switch, that when it gets hit, it just can't help but hit back in some way, whether it's completely inappropriate verbal behavior, or physically hitting another competitor's car or truck on the track.
Kurt Busch has now worn out his welcome at two top-tier teams, first at Roush Racing and now with Penske Racing as it was officially announced as a mutual parting of ways. Kurt Busch said in a statement that he is seeing a sports psychologist to help him learn how to deal with frustrating moments.
There's certainly nothing wrong with a little emotion in NASCAR. It's part of what makes the sport the great. However, when the youtube video of Kurt Busch spewing expletives at ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch went viral, you could say that Kurt Busch pretty much punched his ticket to leave Penske Racing. While Roger Penske is loyal, he also runs a first-class organization in terms of having respect for others. And it wasn't as if Kurt Busch was being badgered by a reporter, looking for an emotional soundbite.
It's never too late to change, but it might be too late for Kurt Busch, who turned 33 in August, to secure another top-flight Sprint Cup ride. He may be financially secure for life, but his emotional security, however, appears to be a completely different case.
Which brings us to his brother Kyle.
He visited Philadelphia early in the fall to promote the October race at Dover. During his visit with a handful of reporters, he was respectful and really, quite normal. There was no hint of bitterness or anger in his responses, so much so, that you could easily think he was done with the whole anger/road rage thing.
But that apparently wasn't the case as Busch wrecked Ron Hornaday in a truck race at Texas in early November. It was bad enough for NASCAR to sit him for the rest of the weekend, including the Sprint Cup race.
So, Kyle's not all the way there either.
There are plenty of things to like about Kyle Busch, too. He loves to race, often competing in truck, Nationwide and Sprint Cup races in the same weekend. He's also the driver most likely to give you an honest answer to a question. He once called the Hendrick Racing a six-car team (technically against NASCAR rules), making his point that the Stewart-Haas team was simply an extension of the Hendrick shop. It's not quite that simple, but he raised a valid point. He's also extremely talented, winning over a combined 100 races in NASCAR's top three series.
Since the talented Mr. Busch turned 26 in May, he's still got a chance to settle down a little, a chance to learn how to not step over the line of out-of-control behavior while still being emotional. He remains on a first-class team at Joe Gibbs Racing. And it was Gibbs who mentored a sometimes too emotional Tony Stewart in his early days and helped him learn to control that anger. So, Gibbs has experience at this kind of thing. And surely Kyle Busch has seen the recent experience of his brother.
So he's got a realistic chance to reign in his emotions some and understand himself better.
Kyle certainly wants to and has the ability to be a Sprint Cup champion and Gibbs Racing has proven it can win championships.
If Kyle Busch can make it through a season without a major infraction, one that causes a $50,000 fine, points penalty or race suspension, then just maybe that will be his first step in proving he's ready to be a champion.
And whether he likes it or not, we'll all be watching.