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Caraviello: Grubb's ouster is ultimate example of move forward, or fall behind

November 30, 2011, David Caraviello,

Grubb's ouster as crew chief may be ultimate example of that NASCAR truism

Around this time last season, on the heels of winning his 10th championship in NASCAR's premier division, Rick Hendrick shook up his juggernaut of an organization by altering the driver and crew chief combinations on three of his four teams. The party celebrating Jimmie Johnson's fifth consecutive title had barely even begun, and already the sport's preeminent car owner was sending the message that the status quo was not good enough.

Like many people in NASCAR, Tony Stewart is something of a Hendrick disciple. It is Hendrick who provides equipment, engines and technical assistance to the Stewart-Haas Racing team, it is Hendrick who dispenses advice, it was Hendrick who convinced Stewart to leave a comfortable situation as a driver and take the plunge into ownership in the first place. And much like Hendrick did a year ago, it was Stewart who oversaw a radical shakeup on a team that had just won the sport's biggest championship.

Darian Grubb learned early in this year's Chase that he wouldn't be sitting atop the No. 14 pit box in 2012. (Getty)

"Nothing is ever good enough forever, and usually by the time you realize that, it's already too late. "


The parallels aren't perfect, of course -- the one program Hendrick did not touch after the 2010 season was Johnson's, while a champagne-soaked Stewart left intact a move that had been decided upon weeks earlier, the choice to remove Darian Grubb from the position of crew chief on the No. 14 team. Yet despite those distinctions, these decisions made by two different car owners after different championship campaigns hearken back to the same message: that in NASCAR, to stand still is to invite disappointment and mediocrity. Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that the one program Hendrick left alone after last year suffered its worst season in a decade.

This is all relative, of course, relative to a team's past performance and future aspirations, but at NASCAR's most elite level championships are really the only goal, and the margin for error is a fine one. So this week comes the news that Stewart's title run did not alter the decision made earlier on Grubb, that Steve Addington would step in next year as the new crew chief on the No. 14 team, and a personnel swap that everyone in the media center got wind of at Charlotte -- and was denied, in so many words, at the time -- will come to fruition after all. It seems crazy, the idea of a crew chief being ousted right after winning a championship; if there's a precedent, it's proving difficult to find. And yet, in the cold business climate that is NASCAR, where maintaining performance trumps absolutely everything else, nothing should come as a surprise.

In a way, the Grubb decision may be the ultimate example of what we've all known for a very long time -- in NASCAR, it's move forward or fall behind. Nothing is ever good enough forever, and usually by the time you realize that, it's already too late. It could be argued that Stewart is simply ahead of the curve here, that he is just taking established beliefs to a new level, that by sticking with his decision to remove Grubb even in the aftermath of a championship campaign, he's only getting a jump on something he'd have to inevitably do at some other time anyway. That sounds callous and brutal and awful, but it's the way of the competitive world. This is not a sport for the meek. Crew chiefs are the motorsports equivalent of head coaches, and head coaches get fired, some of them even after exceptional season. And it's usually less about what's happening in the moment than it is about a broader direction and what might happen in the future.

Now, this is not a defense of Darian Grubb getting canned. On the surface, it seems ludicrous and unfair. It comes across as reactive and short-sighted and completely unnecessary, given the result of this season. Inside the walls of Stewart-Haas Racing, though, that perception is surely different. Again, a parallel to Johnson may be apt -- last season, despite winning the championship, there were ever-present signs and signals that the No. 48 team was vulnerable. The cars weren't always fast enough, strategy backfired, and they won because Johnson was just so damn good. The driver hoisted everyone else onto his shoulders and effectively carried them to a title. The following season, though, that wasn't enough. The problems that seemed only irksome the year before became urgent, and manifested themselves in a sixth-place points finish, Johnson's lowest in a decade.

Welcome to Vegas

Tony Stewart kicks off Champion's Week in Las Vegas with a quick photo tour with the Sprint Cup trophy.

Perhaps that's the kind of thing Stewart is trying to avoid. Let's not forget, in late summer this was a program that stood 12th in points. When Stewart uttered his famous line about not being worthy of taking up a Chase spot, he wasn't lying. This was a team that spent the entire regular season scraping and clawing just to get in, and didn't appear to be anything close to championship contention until winning the first two races of the playoff. And even then, they went backward again, falling to seventh and seemingly out of it heading to Charlotte, when the decision to replace Grubb was made. No question, any championship is a team effort. But like Johnson did the year before, Stewart carried his group to a title. To watch him drive over the final few weeks was to witness a man on a mission, a competitor claiming a championship on guile and skill above everything else.

Now, does that mean Stewart is poised to take a step backward the next year, as Johnson did this season? Time will tell. But Grubb's ouster certainly smacks of a preemptive move. It's a terrible thing to see happen to Grubb, a likeable guy who ultimately delivered the kind of results a crew chief is supposed to deliver. The solace is that with a championship and a Daytona 500 trophy -- won with Johnson, when regular crew chief Chad Knaus was suspended -- on his mantle, Grubb should land on his feet. Hendrick said earlier this week that there's an engineering job open for Grubb at Hendrick Motorsports should he want it, but it would be understandable that he'd rather remain a crew chief. After all, he's proven he can do the job pretty well.

So in comes Addington, Stewart's old cohort from Joe Gibbs Racing, who after two years in the crucible with Kurt Busch has to feel like a shipwreck survivor washing ashore on Maui. Stewart and Addington know one another well, and feel like they'll work well together. But surely Stewart felt the same way once about Grubb, too. And Addington knows the drill, having taken the fall for Kyle Busch's shortcomings in late 2008 and into '09. On NASCAR's top teams, professional relationships have a shelf life, and they thrive only as long as performance does. Addington may well do great things with the No. 14 car. But inevitably, there will come a moment when it's time to adhere to that old NASCAR truism -- move forward, or fall behind -- once again.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.