Can Tony Stewart repeat as champion with a new-look team?
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Tony Stewart, the reigning Sprint Cup champion, isn't afraid to shake things up. Six weeks before he won his third title, Stewart told crew chief Darian Grubb that he would not return in 2012. At the end of the season, even after the duo won three of the five remaining races en route to the title, Stewart stuck by his decision.
On Nov. 29, Stewart hired Grubb's replacement: Steve Addington. Two weeks after that, Stewart further altered the outlook of his team, hiring Greg Zipadelli, his former crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing. Can this new-look team help Stewart win two in a row or is he destined to regret parting ways with Grubb?
Stewart had become familiar with Addington when both were at Joe Gibbs Racing. (Ironically, Grubb has moved over to JGR where he will be Denny Hamlin's crew chief on the No. 11 Toyota.) Although Zipadelli was Stewart's crew chief at the time, Addington worked for JGR's Nationwide Series team and later served as Kyle Busch's crew chief. Addington's office was next to Zipadelli's and when they were at the racetrack Addington would often consult with both Zipadelli and Stewart on race setups for Kyle Busch's No. 18 car.
Even with their familiarity, Addington finds himself in a unique position as a new crew chief for the current Cup champion.
"Some people on the outside looking in wonder what in the world is going on," Addington told SI.com on Monday. "The change was coming, and Tony approached me a week after the Charlotte race in October and asked about my situation and what I was going to do and if I was interested in doing anything. The talk started then. I thought to myself, `What if they go out and win this championship?' But their mind was made up -- there was going to be a change. It's a different situation and a great situation for me to be in to go to work for Tony Stewart and Gene Haas."
Many would shy away from a job with the reigning title-holder, but Addington welcomes that pressure.
"I think we are well prepared for it," Addington said. "Everybody knows what the expectations are no matter who is in here. I wouldn't put myself in this position if I wasn't ready for it. It's not just one person that is going to make this successful. It's the support cast, the road crew guys and the guys over the wall and the group back at the shop. The one thing I have learned here is everybody works together."
One person Addington will be working with is Zipadelli, who will serve as the competition director for SHR. Zipadelli will be in charge of the entire organization and will serve as Danica Patrick's crew chief on the No. 10 Cup ride for her limited 8-10 races schedule in 2012.
"My old brother, we've got the band back together," Addington said of Zipadelli joining SHR. "Greg and Zippy and Tony Gibson [fellow SHR driver Ryan Newman's crew chief] and myself have been friends for a long time. That's exciting. To have Zippy back in the fold is awesome. I played him pretty hard to come over here and join us. To see him walk in that door gave everybody in the organization a great feeling."
Zipadelli has won 34 races as a Sprint Cup crew chief with 33 of those wins coming with Stewart between 1999 and 2008. The 34th victory was Joey Logano's first career victory in 2009.
While Zipadelli looks forward to once again teaming up with Stewart, he is confident that Addington will mesh well on top of the pit box for Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet.
"Steve is a cool cat," Zipadelli said. "He's a hard worker. He's a very, very good friend of mine. So I respect him a lot. I've worked with him in the past. He's won a bunch of races, so there's not a doubt about his ability or the things that he can do with a race car, preparing one. I think it'll just be a little bit of them getting to know each other.
"I think Tony has certainly matured a lot as far as the way he is with people. Listening to him the last couple years on the radio, [it's] completely different than what I had for 10 years ... so I think that's going to help Steve a lot, and I think we're looking for great things from those two."
The tall, strapping Addington has a friendly demeanor but has already endured his trials by fire working for both Busch Brothers. Now, he's prepared to work with another fiery personality in Stewart, who can range from a fun-loving and jovial to extremely acerbic, sarcastic and hot-tempered.
"I've been teammates with him before and I know all of us can be that way," Addington said. "We get frustrated on the box at times. That is just part of it. That's the passion we have in the sport. We want to go out and win races. With Tony we are not going to hurt each other's feelings. We are going to be honest with each other.
"It's going to be awesome to be working with him. ... His name is on the building but he looked me dead in the eye and said `When I show up on Friday I work for you. That's how I want you approach this deal. I want you to straighten me out when I need [to be] straightened out.' ... He's a people person for the people that work for him. He does so much for other people and it's cool to be hanging out with a guy like that."
Stewart is a throwback to the old days of racing. He's a modern A.J. Foyt -- someone who is capable of driving any type of race car to the front of the field. He proved that when he won all three major USAC national championships in the same season (1995).
"He's a racer," Addington said of Stewart. "A computer might say one thing and the simulation program might say another but I go off what my driver is telling me. He is the main link between me and the race car. That is what I'm going to tune off of. Tony agrees with that. That is the key to giving the driver what he needs to go fast. I listen to my driver. It's a new adventure. It's a new job. It's exciting. It's working with a totally different group of people. I look forward to coming to work. Everybody here has made me feel welcome and are super nice. That makes me want to jump out of bed and go to work in the morning."
Addington emphasized that he has a lot of respect for both his former team owner Roger Penske and for the team's former driver, Kurt Busch. But when Stewart approached him about his latest opportunity, he simply couldn't pass it up.
So while Stewart and his team were in Las Vegas celebrating the 2011 Sprint Cup championship, Addington was already at work at the SHR race shop near Concord, N.C., pouring over the team's notes.
"Who needs an offseason?" Addington asked.
"I looked at them guys with big smiles and said with sparks flying that's a good feeling to be back working on race cars again," he said. "I love it when all this stuff takes place. This is why I've been put in this position by hanging in there and getting a great opportunity. This is going to be my best chance to go out and win a championship."