To listen to Kurt Busch name his past crew chiefs is like listening to a man reminiscing about his past girlfriends. "There was Ben Leslie, Jimmy Fennig, Roy McCauley, Pat Tryson," Busch said last Friday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway. "There was that guy Tommy something I had for a week. There was that engineering dude I had once. I'm at 10 for my career right now, but I've never had anyone like Steve Addington. He's invigorated our whole team."
Yes, the match of Busch, 31, and Addington, 45, is already proving to be a fruitful one. Though they've been together for only five races, Busch and Addington have already emerged as perhaps the only credible threat to derail Jimmie Johnson's drive to a fifth straight Sprint Cup title. Busch won his first race of the season on March 7 at Atlanta, and on Sunday at Bristol he led a race-high 278 laps and finished third behind winner—you guessed it—Johnson. Currently sixth in the standings, Busch is one of only two drivers who have beaten Johnson over the 10-race Chase (Busch did it in 2004 when he won the title; Tony Stewart turned the trick in '05), and now, for the first time since he moved from Roush Fenway Racing to Penske Racing in '06, Busch has become a weekly contender for the checkered flag.
"There are still areas where we need to improve, like front-end downforce, but we're getting close to where we can run with Jimmie everywhere," Addington says. "We're already testing things for the Chase."
For a stretch in 2009, Addington was the hottest crew chief in the sport. Paired with Busch's younger brother, Kyle, at Joe Gibbs Racing, Addington showed a golden touch in setting up Kyle's race car, as the younger Busch won three of the first 10 races. But then Addington and Busch struggled over the summer as their communication faltered, and they failed to make the Chase. In October, Addington was fired.
The elder Busch finished fourth in the standings last year behind three Hendrick Motorsports drivers (Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon). But in the off-season his crew chief, Pat Tryson, left Penske Racing for Michael Waltrip Racing for what he called "personal reasons." Tryson said his decision had nothing to do with his driver, but eyebrows were raised in the garage because of Busch's history of being prickly and temperamental.
Yet Addington, the top free-agent crew chief this off-season, wasn't fazed by Busch's reputation. After meeting with Busch and team owner Roger Penske, Addington was convinced that he could win a Cup title with Busch by integrating the setups he'd learned at Gibbs into Busch's team. "I have experience in dealing with the Busch brothers," Addington says. "I also had a feel of what Kurt wanted in his car because both he and his brother like to drive really loose cars. We're a good fit."
It showed on Sunday. After a frustrated Busch hopped from his car and let loose a string of expletives, Addington approached. "We're getting there," he said softly into Busch's ear. "There's nothing to get down about."
Calmed, Busch nodded his head, and for good reason: He and his new crew chief are catching up—fast—to the champ.
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Sunday's race marked the end of an era in NASCAR. The rear wing on the cars, a feature introduced in March 2007, will be replaced with a spoiler starting this weekend at Martinsville. What will the wing be remembered for? Two things: cars getting airborne in scary wrecks, such as Brad Keselowski's harrowing flight on March 7 in Atlanta (many in the garage theorize that the wing makes the cars more susceptible to taking off), and the dominance of Jimmie Johnson(below), who got his third victory of the season at Bristol. Johnson won 22 of the 93 races in the wing era. (The driver with the second-most winged victories is Kyle Busch, with 13.) Said Johnson with a smile, "I'm kind of sad to see the wing go."
JOHN HARRELSON/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR (CARS)
CLOSE RUN Though Johnson (48) won at Bristol, Busch (2 and below, left) and Addington (below, right) are making a race of it.
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (BUSCH)
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TODD KIRKLAND/ICON SMI (ADDINGTON)
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BRIAN CZOBAT/AUTOSTOCK (JOHNSON)
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