News & Media

Grubb finds early success in fresh start with JGR

March 05, 2012, Joe Menzer,

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Darian Grubb stood tall in Victory Lane Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, the late afternoon Arizona sun washing down upon him with such intensity that it almost seemed to set him aglow.

Who could blame him for beaming?

"The way it ended, I didn't really get to enjoy the championship like I really should have. So we're going to do our best this season to go out and win another one, this time with Denny and Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing."


Just more than three months after helping lead driver Tony Stewart to the Sprint Cup championship and then suffering the humiliation of losing his job as crew chief despite that monumental accomplishment, Grubb guided his new driver, Denny Hamlin, to a well-earned win at PIR. He did it on a day when Stewart suffered his own small dose of humiliation, as Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet failed to re-fire immediately after he shut off its engine to save fuel -- costing Stewart valuable track position in the race's waning laps.

But Stewart hardly was the only opponent Hamlin left behind in his Grubb-prepared and Grubb-tuned No. 11 Toyota. On a day when a large part of the field was so equal it produced a record number of lead changes, Grubb made all the right adjustments atop Hamlin's pit box and then made the right call -- barely -- on fuel at the end.

In other words, Grubb earned his paycheck -- and then some. In the process, he made coach Joe Gibbs, the car owner who heads up the racing organization that bears his name, look like a genius for hiring Grubb shortly after he came available last December. Grubb replaced Mike Ford as Hamlin's crew chief, barely a year after Ford and Hamlin nearly teamed together to win a championship of their own.

"I guess you could say it's a little bit of vindication, but I really don't think that way," Grubb said. "I try to just think the high road all the time."

The right hire

Gibbs, a Hall of Fame pro football coach in his previous life, has often said that crew chiefs in NASCAR are the equivalent of head coaches in football. He likened Grubb to those who used to roam the sidelines along with him in his old profession.

"Well, I like coaches," Gibbs said. "For Darian, I'm always amazed at how close it is to the football operation -- because a coach in football roughly works with 13 assistant coaches. Over here Darian has to come in and work with a similar size group. I think what he's done is do a great job of getting all those guys to work together.

"It is a team effort. I think he's done a great job in a short period of time. That's hard to do today."

On Friday at Phoenix, Hamlin had told the media that he wasn't sure how good Grubb was just yet -- despite Hamlin's fourth-place run in the season-opening Daytona 500, Grubb's first race at the helm. It was a joke, mostly, but Hamlin later admitted he was at least semi-serious.

After Sunday, he's got a pretty good idea that Grubb is very good at making a difference when small adjustments can mean everything.

"I mean, for me, I don't know where this came from. I don't know how our car was as good as it was," Hamlin said. "We were solidly off in practice. We were off, but we kept getting it better and closer to being competitive. But I had no idea we were going to fire off like we did.

"It just seemed like we kept improving our car, and I think the turning point for us was that [last] green-flag pit stop. Whatever he did to the car at that point, it was just lights-out after that."

Grubb said he knew what Hamlin was talking about after they registered the fourth in the restrictor-plate race gambit that is Daytona in their first race together.

"Speedway racing, everyone knows is kind of a little bit of a gamble. We had a fast car there, too, and I really wish we could have won it. I think we had a car that could have," Grubb said. "But we came here with another fast car and beat a lot of really good, stiff competition. The whole field was running within about two-tenths of a second in lap times most of the time, so it was a real tough race and we knew that we would have to play the strategy right. Luckily, we came out on top."

Small gains equal big victory

Grubb wasn't ready to reveal all his secrets, of course. He said he just kept trying to tweak the car to make small gains as the day went on. It didn't take long at all for the car to come to life, with Hamlin, who started 13th, moving up to third by the 30th lap of the 312-lap event.

He remained in the top eight pretty much the rest of the day before slipping back to 11th right before the final green-flag pit stop that apparently produced the most magic. It took Hamlin less than 15 laps to get back up to third after that. He took over the lead for good on Lap 254, staying out front when Grubb instructed him to stay out on the track despite others pitting for fuel.

The great news for Hamlin and Grubb is that they appear to be only scratching the surface of their vast potential. Hamlin said it will be two months into the season before he expects they'll really be clicking.

Really? What, then, was Sunday? Preview of a nightmare for the rest of the Sprint Cup garage?

Grubb just wanted to bask in the moment. He wanted to soak it up and enjoy it -- something that mostly escaped him last December when he tried to celebrate his championship with Stewart and his soon-to-be former team at NASCAR's post-season party in Las Vegas.

"I definitely came out of last year feeling like I still had something to prove," said Grubb, who has now been atop the pit box for the winning car in six of the past 12 Sprint Cup races and has 15 Cup victories to his credit. "The end of last year was bittersweet. I really loved working with those guys -- and the way it ended, I didn't really get to enjoy the championship like I really should have. So we're going to do our best this season to go out and win another one, this time with Denny and Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing."

The sun was still shining brightly in Grubb's face as he finished that thought. But it's obviously far from setting on his and Hamlin's first season together.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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