Over the closing weeks of last season, Steve Addington had been led to believe he would be Tony Stewart’s crew chief in 2012.
Then Stewart won at Martinsville and again at Texas to give him four wins in eight races. The Sprint Cup championship was firmly in his reach, and it sure didn’t seem like there were any reasons for Stewart to make changes to his organization.
Addington, laid back by nature, watched and waited. But when Stewart capped off his remarkable title run by winning the season-finale at Homestead to snatch the championship away from Carl Edwards, Addington finally got nervous.
A text message from Stewart calmed him a bit.
"I’m laying in the bed ... sitting there thinking, ‘What’s this guy thinking? They just won a championship. Are they going to change their minds?’" Addington recalled. "Couldn’t sleep and then the phone blew up — I got the text of, ‘No pressure, bud.’"
And so the plan was set in place: Addington announced he was leaving Penske Racing after a tumultuous tenure with Kurt Busch and moving to Stewart-Haas Racing to crew chief the defending NASCAR champion.
Darian Grubb, despite guiding Stewart to five wins in the final 10 races of the season, was out of a job, and fans couldn’t understand why Stewart would make such wholesale changes. Stewart also successfully recruited Greg Zipadelli, his former longtime crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing, to leave that team and join SHR as competition director.
Now, as the defending champion heads this week to Daytona International Speedway for the start of the 2012 season, he’s got to prove he didn’t make a mistake in overhauling his organization. In true Stewart form, though, he’s scoffing at the notion he’s under any pressure.
"You’re asking the wrong guy," he said before motioning toward Addington. "You need to ask him. I feel just fine."
Then Stewart continued, explaining he’s known Addington for years — both were at Joe Gibbs Racing together — and their personalities fit.
"We’re just low key, down-to-earth racers and hardcore racers that want to race. That is the attitude that Steve has coming in here," Stewart said. "I’m not putting any pressure on him. I’m looking forward to going out and racing again."
But Addington knows that if Stewart doesn’t successfully defend his title, the finger likely will be pointed at him. He has never won a title at a NASCAR’s national level, despite taking Kyle Busch as the top seed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
He believes he and Stewart can do it.
"I know a lot of people are going to look at it like, ‘You’re the only thing that’s changed on that race team.’ That’s true," Addington said. "I feel good about it. I’m confident enough in my position and experience in races to give him what he needs in a race car."
The competition will be tight this year, especially at JGR, where Grubb has landed.
When Stewart let Grubb go after their title run, Grubb had his pick of jobs and settled on the crew chief position for Denny Hamlin, who’s coming off a disappointing season that saw the driver fall considerable from his near-championship run in 2010.
Grubb insists there’s no driving desire to one-up Stewart, but he’s motivated to take Hamlin to his first championship.
"No matter what happens when you are in a long-term relationship — you can ask your husband or your wife — the communication level is what makes everything work," Grubb said of his tenure with Stewart. "The more you get stagnant, the more you realize what you should have done in the past. Now we’re both really looking forward with our eyes wide open."
JGR also is looking for a rebound from Kyle Busch, who again faltered after being the top seed in the Chase. He was way out of title contention by the time he lost his temper in the Truck Series race at Texas and intentionally wrecked another driver, prompting NASCAR to suspend him for the rest of the weekend.
It was a humbling moment for Busch, who had to fight hard to keep his sponsors. Now he’s hoping to finally put together a complete season and win the Cup championship that has eluded him.
At the other end of the garage is his older brother, Kurt, who finds himself on a yearlong job audition after splitting with Penske Racing at the end of a tumultuous 2011 season. Top-level jobs were scarce when he hit the market in early December, and he landed with fledgling Phoenix Racing in a one-year deal. The car comes with Hendrick Motorsports horsepower, though, and Busch could surprise many and be a contender in the Feb. 26 season-opening Daytona 500.
More important, though, is proving to sponsors and car owners that he’s got his act together and is ready to return to a top team in 2013.
Edwards, who lost the championship last season on a tiebreaker to Stewart, will try to come back from that disappointment. And Jimmie Johnson, who had his five-year run snapped last season, wants very much to get back in the mix after a career-worst sixth in the final Cup standings.
Kevin Harvick has finished third in points the last two seasons. Thanks to personnel moves at Richard Childress Racing, he’s now paired with crew chief Shane Rogers — the switch he hopes can help him move up in the standings.
RCR is back down to three teams — Harvick, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard — as Clint Bowyer moved on at the end of the season to Michael Waltrip Racing. Many believe he’ll be the breakout driver MWR has long been looking for. He’s teamed with Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin, who will scale back his schedule and share his car at times with team co-owner Waltrip.
AJ Allmendinger is in the best ride of his life now that he’s at Penske Racing as Kurt Busch’s replacement. Coming off a win in last month’s prestigious Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona sports car race, Allmendinger goes into the season with his confidence soaring. Brad Keselowski, his teammate, is looking to improve on last year’s three-win breakthrough season.
Roush Fenway Racing is also down to three cars as sponsorship woes forced the team to close down David Ragan’s Cup ride, and the No. 17 of Matt Kenseth isn’t fully funded. But the organization, which celebrated a Nationwide championship last season with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., believes Edwards, Kenseth and Greg Biffle will be contenders all year.
Then there’s Danica Patrick, who is officially a full-time NASCAR driver. After two years of dabbling in stock cars while she finished her IndyCar Series career, Patrick has made the jump to NASCAR. She’ll run the full Nationwide schedule for JR Motorsports and 10 races for Stewart in the Cup Series.
Only nine of her Cup races have been announced, and the Daytona 500 will be her first next weekend. She’s also going to run the Coca-Cola 600 in May, which makes her unavailable for the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in her career.
Patrick is trying to be reasonable with her expectations for this season, but all eyes will be on her as she’s expected to give NASCAR a massive marketing boost.
She certainly turned some heads last month when she spoke confidently of the Daytona 500.
"I think there is a real chance, if luck falls our way, to perhaps win," she said. "I think that’s a real chance."
Should that happen, 2012 is guaranteed to be a fabulous season for NASCAR.