CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch learned his crew chief was leaving right before NASCAR’s title race began two years ago. The impending split never distracted him, and Busch won a race and finished fourth in the final 2009 standings.
He could be forced to do the same thing again this year.
Busch, ranked sixth in the current standings, goes into Saturday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway surrounded by whispers that crew chief Steve Addington will bolt at the end of the season. The Charlotte Observer, citing unidentified sources, reported Addington is not likely to return in 2012.
Addington, who replaced Pat Tryson at the end of the 2009 season, did not want to discuss his job status.
“I have no comment on the story that’s written off pure rumors and speculation that has no leg to stand on,” Addington said Friday. “So that’s all I can say. We’re here to concentrate on winning the Bank of America 500 and this championship. I don’t know where this is coming from. That’s all I can say.”
Busch was even less talkative. He emerged from his hauler right before Friday’s practice and headed directly to his car.
“I don’t want to talk to you guys,” he said.
What could he possibly have to say?
It’s that point of the title race when the contenders begin to separate themselves from the rest of the field, and even though Busch is only 16 points behind leader Carl Edwards, there’s no room for error in what’s shaping up to be a tight race to the final checkered flag.
Edwards, Kevin Harvick and five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson have established themselves as the strongest in the field right now. The verdict is still out on Tony Stewart, who opened the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with two wins but struggled at Dover and blew a decent finish last week at Kansas with a botched final pit stop.
Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth, ranked fourth and fifth in points, keep hanging around, as does Busch, who beat rival Johnson at Dover to pick up his first Chase victory of the year.
But team owner Roger Penske worried Friday that Busch’s effort could be harmed by the Addington rumors.
“I don’t know how this stuff gets started,” Penske told ESPN.com during IndyCar events at Las Vegas. “But it’s unfortunate because it’s a big distraction to the team in the middle of the Chase.”
After Busch and Stewart, who will start from the pole in Saturday night’s race, the championship race is at a critical state. Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, ranked 11th and 12th, are done. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is ninth in points, hasn’t won a race since 2008 and probably needs to snap that streak to have any shot at winning the championship this year.
That leaves Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon, who are arguably the two biggest disappointments in this Chase.
Kyle Busch opened the 10-race title hunt tied with Harvick atop the points standings. He had four wins during the “regular season” and a new maturity level had many convinced he was poised to win his first Cup title.
One month later, he’s eighth in points and doesn’t have a single top-five finish through the first four races. But he’s got the worst of his tracks behind him, and starting with Charlotte has a strong string ahead.
“Charlotte is one of my favorite tracks, so we’re always excited about being able to get back here,” Kyle Busch said. “It’s a good opportunity for us to have a good weekend. We feel we’re definitely further behind than we would have wanted to be at this point.
“We just have to make sure that we keep fighting and keep fighting hard and not allowing discouraging runs like we’ve had get us down.”
Gordon, meanwhile, dropped to 10th in points after his engine failed at Kansas. He opened the Chase ranked second in points and had many fans convinced he’d compete for his fifth championship —10 years after he won his fourth.
Gordon blamed the engine failure on a scuffed piston. It was his first engine problem for Hendrick Motorsports since last year’s season finale.
Although he was confident he’d have no further issues, an oil light flickered during Thursday night’s qualifying and Hendrick engineers were under the hood Friday checking everything possible.
But Gordon said he has to look forward.
“You don’t let it linger long. We have already moved on from (Kansas),” Gordon said. “We are here in Charlotte, just focused on this race. It doesn’t matter if we won that race in Kansas or if we had the disappointing finish that we did have. You have to start focusing on the next race and we have already done that. You learn from it, you try to grow from it, you go to the next race a nd try to be even better.”