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Grubb Turns Page; Hamlin and JGR Around

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, March 5 2012

There was plenty to celebrate for members of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team at Phoenix on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

It was cool watching Tony Stewart’s late-season, history-making tear through the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship last year. But it was also kind of unsettling. At times, kind of creepy, almost. And those times were when thoughts and attention turned to lame-duck crew chief Darian Grubb.

Because right there in front of us was a man who everybody in NASCAR just knew, was forcing smiles and struggling to keep his true thoughts buried within a wounded soul.

On Sunday afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway, there was zero creepiness surrounding Grubb. Those, you can bet, were genuine smiles he was flashing on the pit box as his car and driver bore down on the checkered flag.

And in Victory Lane, as he celebrated with new driver Denny Hamlin and new boss Joe Gibbs, it was clear that Grubb’s soul was on the mend.

We may never know exactly what caused that bizarre situation at the end of the 2011 season when it was revealed that Grubb had been told in by owner/driver Stewart that he would not return as his crew chief in 2012.

Tough to believe it was a job performance issue. Grubb was a highly respected car guy when he worked for Hendrick Motorsports pre-Stewart-Haas Racing.

He did a near miraculous job in the SHR launch year of 2009. Together, Stewart and Grubb won four races that season. Neither Jack Roush nor Rick Hendrick or even Gibbs won that many races in their first full seasons as owners.

Stewart led the point standings for 13 straight weeks that season. He was the first owner/driver to lead

Darian Grubb had a lot of questions thrown at him over the off-season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

the standings since 1992 when Alan Kulwicki did it.

Stewart won two more races in his sophomore season and made the Chase. Yes, a bit of a backslide but not unexpected and not severe.

Then came 2011 and magic. The team went winless in the regular season but went crazy in the Chase.

Stewart won the first two races of the playoff. He coughed in the next two races and arrived at Charlotte Motors Speedway for the fifth race of the 10-race Chase searching for answers. He would leave Charlotte searching for a new crew chief – even though he won the pole and finished eighth.

Grubb left Charlotte wondering if there was anything that could change Stewart’s mind. The answer turned out to be; nothing.

Stewart and Grubb logged top-eight finishes after the CMS race, then won at Martinsville, won at Texas, finished third at Phoenix and then won the race and the championship at Homestead in the season-finale.

And there was Grubb all during that run making all the right noises but looking a bit death row-ish. And on awards banquet week, there he was again, sitting next to the governor who would never make that job-saving call.

Creepy.

Darain Grubb and his old boss, Tony Stewart. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Grubb, of course, did get the call from Gibbs. He was assigned to Hamlin’s pit box and was dubbed a story to watch in the pre-season.

In the first “real race” of the year, Phoenix, Hamlin and Gibbs and Grubb all were on the receiving end of what had to be some wonderful vindication: Hamlin because of his el foldo act at the end of the 2010 season; Gibbs because of the mediocre year his team had across the board in Cup in 2011; and Grubb, well, because of whatever it is that happened at SHR.

As they settled into their chairs in the PIR media center late Sunday afternoon, there was very little stick-and-ball-style raging against real or perceived past injustices.

But there was a lot of talk about what Grubb’s impact on the young 2012 season.

Gibbs on Grubb: “Over here Darian has got to come in, and I think what he’s done is done a great job of getting those guys all together. It is a team effort. I think he’s done a great job in a short period of time. It’s hard to do today. My understanding, the track changed a lot, and I think he was – made some great calls there. He and Denny working together. So I think that really says a lot about our team.”

Hamlin on Grubb: “The biggest thing I learned early on is his team-building, the way he helps get all the guys surrounded about one goal, and so that’s the biggest thing that I’ve noticed is how tuned he is with the race team, and obviously we’ve got everyone behind us within our 11 team, and JGR right now believing in the thought process that Darian has. Obviously when he has faith in me that he feels like he can win a championship with me, after all the choices he had in the off-season, that gives me a lot of confidence, and those two are just meshing well right now.”

Finally, Grubb on Grubb: When inevitably asked about vindication, Grubb kept the tone control set at 1 and said, ”I guess you could say it is a little bit of vindication,” he said, “but I really don’t think that way. I try to just think the high road all the time. I feel like I came into a very good situation. Mike Ford (Hamlin’s previous crew chief) built one heck of a team here with the 11 car, and the FedEx Toyota is obviously really strong, Joe Gibbs organization is very strong.

“I’ve got a lot of friends in both organizations but I’m proud to come in here and lead this bunch of guys, and even just guys like John Furino who’s actually at home now, his father passed away, he left Phoenix to go back and we dedicated this win to him because he’s a big part of it. We’re a united team. We’re working together that way, and we are just going to keep doing it.”

It wasn’t creepy at all.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, March 5 2012
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