(Despite winning a Sprint Cup title with Tony Stewart, Darian Grubb was sent packing from Stewart-Haas Racing)
There’s a nasty rumor floating around about NASCAR supposedly being in off-season mode.
In reality the sport has been in overdrive since the last checkered flag of the 2011 season flew at Homestead-Miami Speedway less than a month ago.
A flurry of moves by a number of race teams including driver changes, crew chief swaps and sponsorship deals has dramatically altered the Sprint Cup Series landscape.
Many of the sport’s powerhouse teams have been involved in this winter madness and here’s a look at how the three biggest changes so far will impact the 2012 campaign:
Steve Addington Named Crew Chief for Tony Stewart
Even winning five races during the Chase and helping guide Stewart to the Sprint Cup Series championship wasn’t enough for Darian Grubb to keep his job with SHR. The wheels to bring Addington in to replace Grubb were set in motion before the Chase really got rolling and Stewart stuck to his vision for the team even though he took home the title.
The pairing of Stewart and Addington has the potential to be special. The two share similar backgrounds as former short trackers and also spent time together under the Joe Gibbs Racing umbrella. Both are veterans of the sport and perhaps more importantly are friends, a relationship that could pay dividends in the performance department.
“Tony and myself, we’re cut from the same cloth,” Addington said of his relationship with Stewart. “Dirt tracks are where I grew up, short tracks and stuff like that. We stayed in communication from our Gibbs days.”
While Addington has remained professional in addressing his departure from Penske Racing and the stresses dealing with the Kurt Busch situation, he has to be thrilled for a fresh start with a race team fresh off a championship run. He’ll be under some pressure as the guy coming in to replace Grubb’s championship effort, but Addington and Stewart should be a formidable duo in their own right.
Darian Grubb Replaces Mike Ford as Denny Hamlin’s Crew Chief
It didn’t take Grubb long to find a landing spot as Joe Gibbs Racing scooped him up to call the shot for Hamlin.
While it was somewhat of a surprise that Ford fell out of favor with the team only a year removed from leading Hamlin to eight victories and within a whisker of the Cup crown, it was apparent the chemistry inside the No. 11 Fed Ex team was completely gone this past season. So rather than try to recreate what was once there, JGR management decided to try a new direction and bring in Grubb to turn the tide.
Grubb had other options including a return to Hendrick Motorsports in an engineering role, where he spent the first part of his career. But even after the bittersweet way he ended his tenure with SHR, Grubb wanted another opportunity to climb atop the war wagon.
"Right now, I still have that competitive fire in me," Grubb said. "I feel like if I'm not in that position on top of the box being able to make those calls and seat-of-the-pants decisions, then I'd really be missing out on something. I want to continue that."
Grubb’s biggest challenge with JGR may not be building chemistry with Hamlin and helping the team find its lost cohesiveness. There were bigger issues at play within the entire organization last season, not the least of which was the myriad of engine woes that plagued the three car stable.
Gibbs feels those problems have been addressed as the team moves into a tighter relationship with Toyota Research Development (TRD) on the engine program for 2012. But until those are completely solved, Grubb and Hamlin will have a tough road ahead trying to return to the ranks as championship contenders.
Kurt Busch Leaves Penske Racing
Whether it was a “mutual decision” or a plain old firing, the bottom line is Busch is no longer the driver of the Shell/Pennzoil Dodge.
The 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion insists he has options to remain at the Cup level with a competitive team and it appears one of those was with Richard Petty Motorsports and the No. 43 entry. But a report that Busch declined an opportunity to potentially replace A.J. Allmendinger in the ride keeps his immediate future very much a mystery.
But even though sources continue to point to David Ragan to be everything but a done deal as Busch’s replacement, the team has not officially filled the seat on the No. 22.
“We’re continuing to evaluate our options and make the best decision for this organization and our race team,” said Penske President Tim Cindric.
But the longer the saga plays out the tougher it will be for Penske to get the 22 team up to speed for the coming season.
The team did address its vacant crew chief role by elevating Todd Gordon from Penske's Nationwide Series program to the Sprint Cup effort.
There was some speculation that Ford would slide into the open position and work with Ragan or whoever winds up behind the wheel. But based on Penske’s past, the more likely scenario was to promote someone from within the organization, ala Paul Wolfe being moved into the crew chief role for Brad Keselowski after a successful run in the Nationwide Series.
Gordon got the call to follow in Wolfe's tracks and now awaits who he'll work with behind the wheel.
|More NASCAR coverage|