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Osborne, Grubb find themselves in the spotlight

November 19, 2011, Joe Menzer,

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Crew chiefs battling for championship didn't plan on careers in NASCAR

Joe Gibbs, precisely the one man who should know, once said that crew chiefs in NASCAR are like head coaches in professional football. Gibbs predicted more than a decade ago they soon would be considered equal in stature, right down to how much attention the media paid to them.

Whether or not that has happened yet may be debatable. But heading into this Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, no one has ever paid more attention to Bob Osborne or Darian Grubb.

Strategy session

With only one visit to South Beach a year, Darian Grubb and Bob Osborne will lean on 2010 notes to find the perfect setup for the championship.

Osborne, 38, is crew chief for Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Ford that owns a slim three-point advantage in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings heading into the season finale. The world now knows that he has some sort of odd obsession with trying to be the first crew chief to arrive at every pre-race drivers' meeting on the 36-race Cup schedule.

Grubb, 36, is crew chief for Tony Stewart, the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet that sits menacingly just off the pace being set by Edwards. The world now knows that he owns a 13-year-old parrot and listens to heavy-metal music to get pumped up, mellow Jack Johnson tunes to bring his mood back down.

They are the only two men on the planet who may end up having more to do with who wins the 2011 Cup championship than the two celebrity drivers wheeling the contending cars around the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami layout Sunday. Heading into it, they both seem to have a calm confidence about them that they appear to have projected into the minds of their drivers and overall teams, making Sunday's showdown all the more interesting. It is what strong leaders -- great head coaches -- do in pressure situations.

"Honestly, the strategy doesn't change a whole lot for us," Osborne said. "We do have to keep an eye on the No. 14, and the situation will definitely govern a lot of what we do. If push comes to shove, I'm going to make decisions that are going to make our program have the best finish possible. The goal is to win the race, so we're going to do what we feel is best for a strategy to accomplish that goal."

Grubb said Stewart's surprising surge in the 10-race Chase, during which the No. 14 team won four of the nine races, has fueled the confidence of each of his team members.

"It's just that little extra fire is there in every person on the team," Grubb said. "Everybody is trying that extra 10 percent to make sure everything we do is top-notch. ...You're always wanting to run well -- but now we know the championship is the end goal, and it's within our reach. So that extra little bit of fire and desire is what you're seeing on the race track."

Similar backgrounds

Both Osborne and Grubb attended college fully intending to carve out careers in other fields.

Grubb attended Virginia Tech and thought he was going to use his mechanical engineering degree in a more general way within the automotive industry after graduating in 1998. His first job out of college was as a product design engineer in the heavy-trucking industry for Volvo.

"I designed aerodynamic devices and stuff for Volvo trucks -- the big rigs you see on the highway," Grubb said.

Growing up, Grubb said he always had a fascination with cars and virtually all other mechanical devices. He wanted to know how they worked, why they worked. He instinctively wanted to tinker with them until his many questions were answered.

"I'm just very happy working with anything mechanical," Grubb said. "I worked in my dad's construction company growing up and have a mechanical mind. I took all my toys apart, destroyed them and put them back together, all those things.

"Racing was kind of a byproduct of that. I just had a lot of friends that were involved in Friday and Saturday night shows around home and I got involved in that. I was doing it as a hobby all the time on weekends, leaving classes early to make sure I could make it to the tracks in Florida if that's where we were running that weekend and things like that."

He ended up in racing full-time -- and at Hendrick Motorsports, no less -- in the simplest of ways in 2001.

"I put my resume on the Internet and got a position doing my hobby as a full-time job," Grubb said. "I can't ask for anything better than that. I was paying my own way and doing everything for it, and now I get to do the best thing in the world, having a job as a hobby. So it's pretty cool."

Osborne graduated from Penn State with his own mechanical engineering degree in 1997. He, too, thought he was headed for a different kind of more traditional job within the automotive industry.

"I actually had other plans and I deviated to NASCAR," Osborne said. "I had steered my education to work for one of the Big Three [American automobile manufacturers based in Detroit, Mich.] I was shooting for Ford, preferably. But I got involved in some other things racing-oriented in school, and really fell in love with racing at that point. I really didn't have to change my curriculum in school. It was still automotive-based, but it just changed the way I steered the path I chose after I got out of school."

One program he immersed himself in changed it dramatically.

Darian Grubb did something rare by winning his first race as crew chief in the Daytona 500. (Getty Images)

"I got involved in Formula SAE at Penn State there, which is a collegiate program where schools compete building actual race cars and taking them to an event and competing against each other. So that was really what got me tuned into racing and got me charged up on making this a career," Osborne said.

Test drive

Grubb was working as an engineer focusing on driver Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 car at Hendrick Motorsports in 2006 when Chad Knaus was served with a four-race suspension by NASCAR for rules violations. Suddenly, Grubb was thrust into the role of substitute crew chief for the season-opening Daytona 500.

Remarkably, with Grubb on the pit box for the first time in a Sprint Cup event, Johnson went on to capture the sport's biggest race. Johnson went on to win at Las Vegas also during Grubb's short four-race run atop the No. 48 pit box -- paving the way for the first of what would be five consecutive championships for Johnson.

"That really propelled his career onto being a crew chief," Johnson said. "On any race team, you have a very tight group of people who work together -- and with Darian, Chad and myself, we had a great thing going. With Chad's suspension, we had talked in the offseason about how we all needed to step up in our individual roles and then also together as a team, to race for the championship in 2006.

"It was thrown into motion at that point. We had talked about it and thought we were going to start the season in the right space -- but we did not have a choice at that point when Chad was sent home. So Darian learned a lot then, as did I, and it opened doors for him to go on and be a crew chief and he has done an amazing job."

The next year, Grubb served as crew chief for driver Casey Mears at Hendrick -- winning the 2007 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on a fuel-mileage gambit. Then in 2008, he moved over to Stewart-Haas Racing to pair with Stewart, where in 2009 they won four races, plus the All-Star Race, and finished sixth in the Chase standings. In 2010, they won two races and finished seventh in the Chase.

Grubb admitted it has been difficult at times balancing the relationship with Stewart -- and both men have been strangely non-committal about whether they'll even continue as a driver-crew chief duo past this season. Grubb explained that it is a different dynamic for them than any other driver-crew chief in the Sprint Cup garage -- in that Stewart doubles as co-owner of the organization that fields the No. 14 car.

"It's definitely got its ups and downs with that, because Tony does a really good job at separating the two on Monday through Thursday. He puts the owner hat on and does what he has to do to try to help run the organization and those things," Grubb said.

"When Friday through Sunday comes along, we get to the race track, and he switches into driver mode. He works for me at that point, and we do a really good job separating the two to where we get to the race track and we have a common goal. We run toward that every week."

Stewart did not sound like a driver who wants a new crew chief next season when he talked glowingly about Grubb just this last Thursday.

"The thing I try to emphasize to Darian all the time is that I work for him," Stewart said. "I know where everything on the business charts stack up and where our names are on it -- but I think the reason it works for us is that Darian understands that when I get to the race track, I work for him. I'm his driver, he's my crew chief.

"I work for him during the weekend. And even Monday through Thursday, we still for the most part have that same attitude and approach. Obviously I have to take care of the business side a little more. But when it comes to making the decisions on the race cars, I'm not telling him what to do. That's his job. He knows how to make them go fast. It's my job during the week to get him the resources to go out and do what we need to do on the weekends."

Johnson said whatever happens, Grubb's stature in the garage has risen to where he's widely considered an elite crew chief now. And the five-time defending champ said he's not surprised.

Bob Osborne and Carl Edwards have a partnership that dates back to Edwards' first Cup race in 2004. (Getty Images)

"Darian has a certain style. He's a real friendly, nice guy to work with and he has been able to take that into a very difficult role as crew chief and still keep his style and do his thing and be successful at the same time. I am proud of what he's done," Johnson said.

Together again

Osborne made his crew chief debut in 2004 with the No. 99 team, when it was still being driven by Jeff Burton for what was then Roush Racing and now is Roush Fenway Racing. With 13 races left in that season, a young, relatively unknown driver named Carl Edwards took over behind the wheel.

The pair almost immediately clicked on the track. They won four races together in 2005, finished third in the Chase, and it looked like they were on their way -- together, as a team. But team owner Jack Roush wanted to try something different the next season, so he split the duo up and moved Osborne over to the No. 26 Ford being driven at the time by Jamie McMurray.

"As far as when we got separated in 2006, we here at Roush Fenway felt like the 2005 season for the No. 99 was a great year. We felt like we had a great program going there," Osborne said. "What we were trying to do there is basically improve some of the other programs at Roush Fenway at the time by basically setting up the same structure in that No. 26 program that I had on the No. 99 program.

"So we felt like the No. 99 program would be incredibly strong still, and then we were trying to improve the No. 26 program along the way with that. So it was an opportunity to expand the technology, let's say, or the performance level of the company in general without hurting the No. 99 program overall."

It didn't work. Edwards was winless in 2006 and Roush smartly abandoned the idea of keeping the two split up after that. They were reunited and won three races while finishing ninth in the points in 2007; won a series-high nine races and finished second to Johnson in 2008; then slumped to an 11th-place finish in points with zero wins in '09 before pulling it back together in 2010, when they won twice and finished fourth in the Chase.

"We didn't get as much out of it as we had hoped, for sure," Osborne said of the ill-fated swap in 2006. "And after that we decided to go the other way. Carl and I got the opportunity to work together again, which has been great ever since."

Edwards said he expects the partnership to last a long, long time now.

Darian Grubb and Tony Stewart admit their relationship is rocky at times due to each of their roles within the team. (Autostock)

"He will be my crew chief for as long as he wants to be my crew chief," Edwards said. "He's good, and he's not good because he has a Trick of the Week every week. He's good because he works hard and he's smart. I'm not the one who decides -- Jack decides at the end of the day -- but I can't imagine starting another relationship with someone else. But I'm getting to the point where I can say to Jack what I would like, and it would take a lot to pry Bob Osborne away from me unless Bob wanted to go for some reason."

May the best chief win

Both crew chiefs believe their driver is the best, as it should be. Osborne said he marvels at how much Edwards has improved through the years, especially in the mental aspect of the job, which requires great self-discipline.

"Obviously Carl's experience level has increased a great deal," Osborne said. "I think the one thing that's changed quite a bit from when Carl and I started working together -- regardless of both of our experience [levels] because we were both very inexperienced when we got hooked up together originally. Now Carl really understands how to race a race.

"He knows when the right time is to really push the race car, and really push the limits. He also knows when the right time is to save the equipment and to save tires and to, you know, save all of the facets that need to be managed of the race car during the race. His gauging of a race and when to really go and when not to go have improved quite a bit over the years and he's exceptional at it now, I believe."

Likewise, Edwards credits Osborne with keeping a cool head when sometimes it's absolutely required to prevent the driver inside the car from blowing the top off his race helmet.

"Bob's unbelievable. We've been through really great times and really terrible times -- and we've stuck together, sometimes when it looked like maybe we shouldn't stick together," Edwards said. "He's cool and calm and projects that onto the rest of us on the team when he needs to. He's the best, in my mind."

Grubb's relationship with Stewart appears more complex. It certainly was strained when Stewart went winless in the 26-race regular season and barely qualified for the Chase, which first fueled the speculation that Grubb might be on his way out.

But they have always been in it to win it. And now that they find themselves in position to possibly do so, all else seems forgotten -- at least in the vacuum that will be Sunday's race.

"We've gotten to be pretty good friends on and off the race track," Grubb said. "We've spent a lot of time together. We know each other a little better than we should at times. We eat, sleep, and live together pretty much half the time at the race track.

"So it's a tough dynamic, kind of a love-hate brother relationship at times, especially when you feel each of you needs to do something. But it's the best of times when you can go out there and make things work and get on top of the victory stage and take those pictures with the trophy."