Race Weekend Central

The Right Stuff… For Smoke

People thought Tony Stewart was crazy as a loon when he let Darian Grubb go as crew chief of his No. 14 Office Depot / Mobil1 Chevrolet, especially since Grubb led Stewart-Haas Racing to five victories in the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

The end result was Stewart’s third Sprint Cup title and the first for the organization last November. Yet, true to his word just moments after the hardware was hoisted, Stewart served the head wrench his pink slip.

Tony Stewart and Steve Addington exchange a high-five after hitting up Victory Lane in just their third race together as a driver/crew chief duo.

But it didn’t take long for SHR to resume its winning ways, regardless. On Sunday, Grubb’s replacement was the one who made the calls that kept the boss in command of the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, earning Stewart another victory, as well as his first as the replacement for Grubb.

Who’s crazy now? Of course, there’s a long way to go until the proof will find its way to the pudding, but for now, it’s worth a high-five and a small smirk of satisfaction.

For Addington, who was released from three seasons of purgatory as crew chief to the Busch brothers, the relief at earning that first trophy was palpable.

“It’s a big relief, to know you’re the difference in the race team right now,” he said following the Victory Lane celebration. “I’m going to tell you, everybody has been awesome.”

“Nobody put the pressure on me except myself. I really didn’t realize how much I’d put on myself going to work for the championship team the very next year. It’s been a lot of pressure. I think that even when Tony feels good about the car, I’m still questioning. He’s just like, ‘Relax, dude, it’s going to be all right.’”

“I texted him a couple times last night,” Addington said by way of example. “He was like, ‘What do you want to do?’ I told him a couple little things. He was like, ‘OK, we’re good. Just go ahead and do what you feel like you need to do.’ He was real confident in the race car. It’s just me wanting to get that win. It’s the first mile‑and‑a‑half race track together and [I was] just a little nervous about it.”

A little icing on the cake for Addington is the fact that Stewart had never won at LVMS, despite having at least a couple of shots at victory snatched from him in the closing laps. But this time, it was clearly the head wrench who ensured Stewart would end this race the head honcho. Addington went with two right-side tires on the next-to-last stop and chose no tires on the final one, giving Stewart the advantage of track position in the final restarts. Stewart had the field’s number all day when the green flag waved, and he held off Jimmie Johnson for the victory.

Still, even Stewart, who is usually unflappable when the chips are down, said the final stages were filled with anxious moments.

“Obviously, from the driver’s side, not knowing what the pit strategy is going to be… that’s the hard part for Steve,” Stewart said. “That’s where he makes his big money, making those clutch calls like that. We pulled out, two tires, a couple guys behind us on two, it was pretty nerve‑wracking knowing we were going to have to get going.”

After people questioned Stewart’s decision to dismiss old crew chief Darian Grubb, he’s continued to climb into successful, speedy race cars under Steve Addington’s watch thus far in 2012.

It’s a tough call. Taking two while outside the pit window to the end means one of two things: you guessed right and you’ll have another caution to get two more or four, plus the gas you need to make it to the end, or you guessed wrong, and there’s nary a yellow in sight when you have to duck onto pit road for the race-killing splash-and-dash. Addington made the right call, and Stewart wound up in Victory Lane.

It wasn’t as easy as all that, though. Cautions breed cautions, and a whole litter of them were born in the final 40 laps. That meant that Stewart, on older tires than most, had to take everyone else’s best shot on the restarts.

“Every time the caution came out, you cringed knowing you were giving them another opportunity to take a shot,” Stewart related. “[It] seemed like everybody got their turn at it, just a different person on each restart that we had to hold off.”

But Addington stuck to his guns and made the racer call: take two and hold on to the end. And that’s one of the reasons Grubb was released and Addington hired, the propensity to make the racer call rather than the engineer call. Stewart is a racer; he’d rather lose the race honestly, from the front, than settle for second. Meanwhile Addington, car chief Jeff Meendering and the crew had the car pretty close to perfect off the trailer, and Stewart liked it after Happy Hour. That didn’t happen a whole lot with Grubb.

“We felt like after Happy Hour yesterday we had a really good, solid, fairly balanced race car,” Stewart said. “That’s probably the best I felt leaving Happy Hour in a long time.”

It left the driver to seal the deal from there. Stewart was by far the best car on restarts all day, though the car needed two or three laps before it came in, and he used that advantage to the end.

“Our car was so, so strong today on restarts,” Stewart enthused. “We could get to the start/finish line and get to turn one so good today, that was a big key in holding these guys off.”

“It seemed like we were a little bit weaker than the guys behind us for the first three laps. Then the next three laps, we would break even. After six or seven laps, we would start pulling away. It was a matter of getting a good restart, hitting our marks for a couple laps, going on.”

The resulting victory means that the partnership of Stewart and Addington won in just their third start together, and the team has now won for the sixth time in 13 races dating back to Chicagoland last year. Looks like they’re not skipping a beat.

From my view, it’s a simple reason: Addington thinks like a racer while Stewart is a racer, one of the best around. That sounds like it’s going to be a partnership made to win races and championships. Stewart made the change to Addington for that reason.

“You guys know I never worry about what everybody else says anyway,” Stewart quipped post-race to the media. “I’d like to think over 32 years of racing, we’ve made some pretty decent decisions over that period of time.”

“It still was a tough decision, like we talked about a million times now. It was a tough decision to leave with Darian. From day one, we told Steve that we had an awesome scenario at the end of the year, winning the championship. I guess it’s easy for us to not feel that pressure from our side. You understand why the pressure ‑‑ that Steve puts the pressure on himself in that scenario. We told him from day one we’re going to go have fun, race hard, take what it gives us.”

Stewart said he was happy that Grubb won the week before at Phoenix, and that he was happy to see the two teams win back-to-back.

“Hopefully it will calm everybody down and get back to the task at hand,” Stewart said. “I’m glad both teams have come out strong like this.”

Racer to racer, it could be the start of something special — again — for Stewart and his team.

“Contact Ron Lemasters”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/34178/

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