Crew chief's calm demeanor has salvaged Kurt Busch's season
There are moments when Steve Addington's voice seems as if it is about to meander into a country song. Dulcet barely describes it. It's as if Charley Pride wrote a spoken word ballad about shocks and springs.
Perhaps it's this Texas-via-Arkansas-by-way-of-South Carolina timbre that has so effectively talked Kurt Busch's season from the proverbial ledge. Certainly, engineering and personnel changes at Penske Racing helped correct the disastrous slide the No. 22 Dodge team took after beginning the season with a burst, but something within the crew chief has seemingly provided the intangible, interpersonal connection that has held the team together.
It might be perspective, something Addington learned through the pain of Ronnie Silver, a former Nationwide Series crew chief for Michael Waltrip.
"I had a good friend of mine that watched his dad get killed in an airplane crash and he had the family business thrown on him and he about killed himself trying to please everybody," Addington said of Silver. "And the pressure was on him and he's the one that told me [he] finally woke up one day and said, '
"And he taught me a lot about these cars and he's a very good friend of mine and I've lived by that philosophy for a long time."
A mental and emotional center point has been crucial in Addington's last two Sprint Cup jobs: crew chief for Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing from 2008 until late in the 2009 season (they had 12 wins together after Busch took over the No. 18 Toyota); and crew chief for Kurt, his older brother, beginning in 2010. Both are extremely talented, but equally combustive and prone to public fits of pique when unsatisfied. Kyle Busch said after Addington's removal, "I love Steve," and took some of the blame for their collaboration failing to produce the results team president J.D. Gibbs sought. But JGR driver Denny Hamlin said the relationship "went stale," adding, "you've got someone who's rambunctious and someone that's reserved. It's tough to keep that going outside of the honeymoon period."
Kurt Busch, who learned Addington had been released by JGR while posing for a family Christmas card portrait in 2009, immediately asked his brother for Addington's phone number.
"I said, 'Can you give me Steve's number?'" Kurt said at the time. "He told me to go find it on my own."
This Busch-Addington marriage appears to have passed the honeymoon period and entered, if not bliss, partnership.
"I'm pretty laid back. I don't show a lot of emotion," Addington said. "I think I have the same passion as both those [Busch] kids do. I think they know that. I look at it as there's places to address certain issues and I don't do it in an argumentative way on the radio, out there for the whole world to see. I think they both know I take these cars very personal. I think every time I put that car on the racetrack that's part of me, and people look at it as a connection to me, so I take it very personal.
"Working with them, I learned a long time ago, you go out every single day and put out your best effort. You're not always going to please everybody. I don't roll a car to that starting grid without thinking we can go out and win the race with it. Some days it's going to work, some days it's not. You just have to have thick skin and take it as it is on those tough days."
The Richmond spring race was one of those days, as Busch railed against his crew, calling out veteran technical director Tom German, who left soon after to attend Sloan School of Management at MIT. The team asserts that the timing of German's departure and subsequent improvement in performance was coincidental.
"I was probably a lot worse than Kurt was at Richmond," said Addington. "When you can't put a finger on what it is, it's a very frustrating position. And I know it's frustrating to be out there in a car and not be able to get it done. Both sides are very frustrating."
The team confirmed in a test soon after Richmond that it had pursued fruitless engineering avenues and subsequently made adjustments that improved performance. After the change, Busch, who led the points standings for two of the first four weeks before slumping and falling as far as eighth, won three straight poles, finished second at Pocono and then won his only race of the season at Sonoma, Calif. He entered the Chase for the Championship fifth in points and improved to fourth by finishing sixth at Chicago. Though Busch has had sporadic outbursts on team radio -- again on Monday in the Chase opener, complaining how the team consistently fails to improve the car during the race -- Addington seems to consider them a means of venting frustration and an excusable by-product of an extremely public occupation.
"How many times would you like for me to come and sit on your desk all day long?" Addington asked. "You're going to have your bad days. That's life. I'm going to have my bad days when I'm not in a good mood and I don't want to deal with certain things. It's not played out for everybody. What the drivers do, they're in their office and it gets played out for everybody to listen to and replayed over and over again.
"That's a tough spot to be in. It was just frustration. ... We know that if we give him a car that is pretty close, he will step up to the plate and give us pretty good results with it. That's why we didn't get down. We didn't get down on him. He didn't get down on us."
But even inner peace would seemingly have its limits. Addington has personal versions of Richmond radio eruptions, but he saves them for the private meetings and private moments.
"I don't want everyone to know that," he grinned. "I get a little frustrated. I'll throw stuff, well, not throw stuff, I get ... I need my alone time. For me, it's getting by myself and getting some relief thinking about a lot of stuff and getting it off my mind. You got friends you talk to and they help out. I got a different way of doing things."