News & Media

Naughty or nice, NASCAR karma comes around

December 12, 2011, Joe Menzer,

Just when it seemed it really might not matter who's naughty or nice in NASCAR, two events occurred to restore at least a portion of faith in the old adage that personal behavior truly does mean something.

Kurt Busch was out of a job at Penske Racing and Darian Grubb, who had been inexplicably muscled out of his at Stewart-Haas Racing after helping Tony Stewart win the 2011 Sprint Cup championship, found a new home as Denny Hamlin's crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Starting over

Kurt Busch leaves Penske Racing with a dearth of open seats and no announced plans for the future. It was a move that was unexpected even two months ago.

Busch, Penske and even Dodge officials were quick to point out that Busch's departure was "a mutual decision," and to some degree that was true. But it's obvious that it never would have happened if Busch hadn't embarked on a series of personal tirades in and out of his No. 22 Dodge throughout the season -- blistering a wide variety of Penske and Dodge personnel, not to mention members of the media and fellow driver Jimmie Johnson, whom he frequently saw as in his path and somehow at fault when race days did not go as he had planned. The proverbial final straw came during the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway when he was caught on video delivering a lengthy one-finger salute as he pulled into the garage area, followed by an obscenity-laced barrage directed without provocation toward Dr. Jerry Punch, a respected, veteran member of the media who was attempting to do a brief, live television interview.

Grubb, meanwhile, did nothing but keep his head down and continue working long hours without complaint even as his season with Stewart did not get off to the start that either crew chief or driver had envisioned. Unbeknownst to Grubb, at least initially, Stewart made the decision before the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup commenced that a change atop his pit box was in order.

And that was when the whole thing started to get weird, with Busch's fate and that of Grubb suddenly becoming intertwined.


As often is the case in the Sprint Cup garage, one domino falling led to another and ultimately another, and so on. The fallout from the Busch-Grubb situations still isn't completely settled, as Busch has yet to secure a ride for 2012 and beyond.

As the 2011 Chase approached, Stewart heard through the garage grapevine that Steve Addington, then Busch's crew chief, was unhappy. Gee, figuring that out after all the verbal abuse Busch heaped on over a two-year relationship was akin to a 21st-century scientist establishing a link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

Once Stewart started courting Addington to replace Grubb, the wheels were set in motion for everything to fall apart, then fall back into new places. Even though Grubb suddenly helped Stewart find the magic to win the first two races of the Chase, it was too late. Stewart's mind to move in another direction at season's end was made up.

Conventional wisdom dictated that once the incredible run for the Grubb-led and Stewart-driven No. 14 Chevrolet team continued, which it did right through a championship-clinching victory in the season finale, Stewart would somehow change his mind and keep Grubb employed at SHR. But Stewart already had promised Grubb's job to Addington, who was determined to leave Penske and the clutches of Busch.

"Grubb was a class act, a nice guy to anyone who asked, all the way until the end of his run at Stewart-Haas Racing -- even when it appeared he was being wronged."


Five times in the 10 Chase races Grubb loyally accompanied Stewart to Victory Lane and sat next to him during post-race interview sessions in track media centers. On at least three of those occasions, if not all five, Grubb either knew that he would be out of a job at season's end or at least suspected it.

Yet he said nothing. He was increasingly coy about his job security as the weeks passed, but said nothing concrete until after the championship was clinched. Grubb was a class act, a nice guy to anyone who asked, all the way until the end of his run at Stewart-Haas Racing -- even when it appeared he was being wronged.


Grubb's misfortune proved to be Mike Ford's when Joe Gibbs Racing decided to dismiss Ford as Denny Hamlin's crew chief and replace Ford with Grubb. Yes, JGR officials said they were going to make a change anyway with the No. 11 Toyota team. But Grubb's availability made it easier for them to make sense of dismissing Ford, who nearly guided Hamlin to a championship only a year earlier in 2010.

Meanwhile, Busch remains stuck in racing limbo. He has apologized some more for at least some of his actions, but seems determined to make certain everyone knows he wasn't "fired outright" for them. He wants it on the record that it was a mutual decision between himself and Penske Racing for him to climb out of the seat of the No. 22 Dodge, despite the fact that he had been slated to earn millions driving it through the 2015 season.

Whatever. The next time a driver willingly climbs out of a top-notch ride like the one Busch is abandoning at Penske without having an equal ride lined up will be the first time.

At this point in time, it does not appear Busch has that next equal ride lined up. It could be coming. Maybe there is another monumental shift left in the Sprint Cup garage before this ordeal is completely played out.

And make no mistake, Busch is an outstanding driver. Talent-wise, he's probably one of the top six stock-car drivers in the world. As far as his ability to communicate with and work in harmony with other people on a regular basis? It would be difficult for him to find a room full of seven people where he could rank in the top six.

So the moral of the story here is simple and one that has survived the test of time through the ages. Play nice and in the end you will be given your just rewards. Play naughty and you never know what might happen, but the end is likely to be ugly.

Then, if you want to stay in the game, you have to start over.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.