News & Media

Addington has degree from racing's old school

January 26, 2012, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Stewart's new crew chief excited about partnership, defending championship

After he was released from Joe Gibbs Racing with three races remaining in the 2009 season, one of the first people Steve Addington met with was Tony Stewart. Stewart-Haas Racing was hoping to add a third car to join those of Stewart and Ryan Newman, and should it become reality, that vehicle would need a crew chief. The expansion didn't happen, and Addington wound up at Penske Racing instead. But he always stayed in touch with Stewart, and kept one wistful eye on that organization.

This past November, the call finally came. Despite winning his third championship in NASCAR's premier series, Stewart parted ways with crew chief Darian Grubb and hired Addington -- an old friend, and an old-school racer to the core -- as his new man atop the pit box. For the crew chief, it seemed less a job opportunity and more a reunion with buddies from a Saturday night short track.

"He's been easy to work with so far, and ... I think we're going to have a lot of fun. I don't think it's a big stress situation for either one of us right now."


"This is always where I wanted to come to, because of the racers that I knew and would have a chance to work in this type of atmosphere and this type of organization," Addington said Monday, on the opening day of NASCAR's preseason media tour. "That was my goal of trying to get over here two years ago, and finally it's happened."

And it brings with it a challenge unlike any a crew chief has faced before. Stewart kicked off this year's media tour, where his race team's roster was introduced like a basketball starting lineup to the strains of The Heavy's How You Like Me Now. The most headline-grabbing addition is Danica Patrick, who last year recorded the best finish ever for a woman at NASCAR's national level, and this season will add a limited Sprint Cup effort with Stewart-Haas to her full-time Nationwide campaign. But when it comes to Stewart defending his Sprint Cup title, the more critical addition is clearly Addington, who succeeds a guy who won it all -- and still got fired.

To say the least, that's a difficult act to follow. Grubb may have lost his job because the No. 14 car labored through the final stretches of the regular season, and then relapsed after a strong start to the Chase. But the former crew chief's calls also helped Stewart close the gap on points leader Carl Edwards at Martinsville, and eventually overtake him on a tiebreaker on the season's final night. According to Stewart, Grubb's fate had been sealed before those last few races, a fact he says helped the team focus on solely performance. But the end result is still the same -- a championship won, and a crew chief gone -- a scenario that would seem to put a little more heat on the man in that always-hot seat atop the pit box.

"As far as from my side, I'm not putting any pressure on him," Stewart said. "I'm looking forward to going out and racing again. We both know there's going to be a period of getting to learn each other, and just little things we'll have to get sorted out within that weekly routine. Daytona, that 10-day period is not going to get it done. It's going to take a lot longer than that. It's going to take getting through Phoenix and Vegas and some of those races to really get in tune with each other. But he's been easy to work with so far, and ... I think we're going to have a lot of fun. I don't think it's a big stress situation for either one of us right now."

Despite his occasional struggles through the 2011 season, Stewart won his third championship with a devastating finishing kick, and a record five race victories in a single Chase. And yet, it's not difficult to understand why Stewart may see Addington as a better fit for his No. 14 team than Grubb was. Within many NASCAR race teams there is a constant push-pull between decisions made on the basis of engineering and computer simulation, and decisions made by feel. That new school-versus-old school dynamic has been around for years, and it pits engineers against what are often called "seat of the pants" racers, guys who put more faith in human feedback than what a computer says they should do. Stewart is very much a seat-of-the-pants guy. Grubb is an engineer, with a degree from Virginia Tech.

Addington? His degree is from racing's old school. "I'm still off the driver's feel and what he's saying is happening," the crew chief said. "I'll look at a computer and run it through [simulation] and stuff like that, but it all comes back, no matter what the computer says or what anybody says, to you've got to make the driver comfortable to go fast."

In Addington, Stewart has found a crew chief who more closely mirrors himself. The three-time champ believes Grubb is better suited for a more analytical driver like Denny Hamlin, whom he is now working with at Gibbs.

A good feeling

After three days of testing at Daytona, Steve Addington says it's clear to him the pieces are in place for Tony Stewart to make a run and repeat as Cup Series champion.

"Denny's a very technical guy. I'm the opposite of that," Stewart said. "I'm, get in the thing and drive it. But Denny will analyze everything that's going on the car, and Darian is very good at that. I think they'll be a better pairing than I actually was with Darian."

At Stewart-Haas, Addington fits right in with the likes of fellow crew chief Tony Gibson and new competition director Greg Zipadelli, veteran racers who paid their dues at short tracks and are more apt to let their instincts guide their decision-making. Although Newman and team vice president for competition Matt Borland both hold engineering degrees, Addington said that old school/new school conflict so prevalent at other shops does not exist at Stewart-Haas. No surprise, given the man at the top.

"Every guy in there has worked on short track cars, or late models, or Saturday night stuff, even in the engineering department," Addington said. "That's a big key. This is a group where the engineering department has respect for the racers, the guys who go to the race track every week -- and the guys who go to the race track every week have respect for the engineering department. That just works great. From what I've seen, there's no wall in between them."

Addington has won 16 races as a crew chief at NASCAR's top level, 12 with Kyle Busch and four with Kurt Busch. In the process, he's developed a reputation for being cool and unruffled, even while working with temperamental drivers who can sometimes be highly critical on the radio. That was certainly the case this past season with the elder Busch brother, during a campaign that included a radio tirade in the spring Richmond race and the driver's eventual departure from the Penske team.

"I think he's thinking he's on vacation now," Stewart quipped.

Of course, Stewart can be a handful at times, too. But Addington says his new boss has promised that the crew chief will make the decisions on the car, and have the driver's full support. Early returns from testing at Daytona, where Addington said he made adjustments to the car that Stewart responded to, were hopeful.

"I've been toughened up. I've got thick skin," Addington said. "Tony is going to have his moments, no doubt about it. Every one of them do. But I'm looking forward to the year, just having great communication with the driver, and having a driver that's willing to work with us through thick and thin to make the car better."