CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Steve Addington won 12 races over 18 months and it wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t enough for Kyle Busch, who sputtered through last summer and seemed to lose confidence in his crew chief. And it wasn’t enough for Joe Gibbs Racing, which let the crew chief take the fall when Busch missed a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Addington was given his pink slip on a Monday last October, when JGR told him he had one last race atop the pit box and would be replaced after the checkered flag. He wasn’t told to pack his things and get out, though, because JGR was willing to let Addington stay with the organization is a lesser role.
He politely declined the offer.
Instead, Addington packed up his notes and his setups and found another job.
With Busch’s older brother.
The move in December to Penske Racing was certainly not without baggage: Addington was motivated to prove to an entire industry that he wasn’t the reason why Kyle Busch’s season soured, and he was going to do it with a former NASCAR champion who had fallen into the shadow of his little brother’s success.
Through the first five races, both Addington and Kurt Busch have delivered.
Kurt Busch is sixth in the Sprint Cup standings with three top-10 finishes. He has a win at Atlanta, a pole at home track Las Vegas, and, after dominating Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway only to get beaten in the closing laps by Jimmie Johnson, Busch has the confidence to believe he can run with the four-time defending champion.
“I’m happy to have Steve Addington on the team, he’s making me believe the Busch brothers can’t drive,” Busch said after Sunday’s third-place finish, adding that Addington is “maybe a missing link I’ve been missing at Penske for years.”
Kyle Busch, meanwhile, has just one top-10 with his new crew chief, only 37 laps led all season and is 10th in the standings.
Motivation can go a long way sometimes. Kyle Busch had plenty of it following his 2007 firing from Hendrick Motorsports, when he hopped into a JGR car intent on showing that Rick Hendrick had made a mistake. Addington fueled that fire from their first day together as driver and crew chief, when Busch turned heads with the fastest laps at an Atlanta test session.
The duo rode that wave to the top of the Cup standings and eight fast wins in their first season together, while Kurt, seven years the senior and the 2004 champion, became something of an afterthought.
Kyle, with Addington, made the 2008 Chase as the top seed. Kurt, meanwhile, failed to qualify for one of the 12 spots.
Shortly after, though, Kyle came crashing back down to earth. A combination of mechanical issues at JGR, coupled with Kyle Busch’s aggressive style and streaky temperament derailed his championship bid and carried over into 2009. Although he won four races earlier last year, the team was up and down and Addington lost the ability to keep it at even.
Kurt Busch, meanwhile, was hitting his stride. He moved back into championship contention, won two races and, at fourth in the final standings, was the highest-finishing driver not in a Hendrick car. All was not well, though, as crew chief Pat Tryson confirmed in September — the week before the Chase began — that he was leaving at the end of the season to work for another team.
Addington became available a month later, and worked out a deal with Kurt Busch not long after the season ended. Neither publicly declared they had anything to prove, but everyone knew they were motivated, and it was so obvious after their first win together two weeks ago at Atlanta.
Addington admitted he slept well the night before the race, primarily because he was confident his driver had given him the critical feedback needed to prepare the car — something Kyle Busch struggled with during his slide. Winning at Atlanta, same place Addington got his first victory with Kyle Busch, was clearly vindicating.
“I think if I denied that, I would be lying,” he smiled.
It was special, too, for Kurt Busch.
“In his mind and the way that he departed Gibbs Racing, and the way that he jumped over with us at Penske, where you’re moving from a program to another, you never know what to expect,” Kurt Busch said. “You don’t know all the uncertainties and he trudged his way through all of that during this offseason. To see him win before (Kyle) won was big in his mind and I was happy to help deliver that.”
Don’t underestimate Kurt Busch, though, he had to take a certain delight in also beating his brother to Victory Lane this season. More important, though, was grabbing a win that showed Busch can run with Johnson and the No. 48 team.
It’s why he was so disappointed Sunday after leading 278 laps only to lose to Johnson because a late caution shuffled the strategy. He admitted he’d rather lose to anyone in the garage but Johnson, and was already looking ahead to this weekend’s race at Martinsville, a place where Busch struggles but Johnson has won five of the last seven races.
Off to such a good start with Addington, the duo can maybe now be content they’ve proved a point or two through the first month of the season and focus on sustaining it all season long. After all, that’s the ultimate statement either could make.
“I feel confident that we’ve turned a good corner,” Busch said. “I have a great crew chief in Steve Addington. But it’s early in the year. We’ve had a couple solid runs. We’re not going to get too far ahead of ourselves.”