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.