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Crew chief Grubb looks to make good with Hamlin

September 16, 2012, Joe Menzer,

JOLIET, Ill. -- Heading into the Christmas holiday season in early December of last year, Darian Grubb and Denny Hamlin each possessed something that the other deeply desired.

Grubb had a Sprint Cup championship fresh in hand, but needed a job. Hamlin had a job opening -- or at least great influence over one at Joe Gibbs Racing -- and a great racing resume overall, but no championship.

" If you put me back in that situation again ... I guarantee a championship."

--DENNY HAMLIN, on 2010


"You always hope to top it. But ... I don't want to go through that much drama again."

--DARIAN GRUBB, on 2011

So when JGR hired Grubb to be Hamlin's new crew chief this past Dec. 9, they each felt as if they were receiving an appropriate early Christmas present. Grubb had a job again after inexplicably being pushed out at Stewart-Haas Racing following a championship season with Tony Stewart, and Hamlin had a crew chief that he believes can guide him to where he wants to go.

Together, they stand confident and ready to begin pursuit of their common goal when the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup commences with the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday. Hamlin is the top seed heading into the Chase by virtue of his series-high four wins during the first 26 races that determined the 12-driver playoff field.

Hamlin said he has matured and learned from his No. 11 Toyota team's collapse in the final two races of the 2010 Chase, when he seemingly had a grip on his first title and let it slip away in troubling races at Phoenix and Homestead.

"That's so far back in the rear-view mirror," Hamlin said of 2010. "I'm just going to have way more fun this time around. And if you put me back in that situation again at Homestead, I guarantee a championship. I just hope to execute the first nine weeks to have that shot again."

Grubb admitted he feels as if he has something to prove after getting dumped by Stewart, and that he'd love to beat his old team and everyone else by winning a second consecutive championship with his new driver.

"It's one of those things where you can never really guarantee [a championship]," Grubb said. "But the mental attitude is half the battle. As long as you go in with the mental attitude that you can win the races, the pit crew is going to be behind you, everybody is going to be behind you with the tools to allow you to do it on the race track. It takes all of us to get it done.

"We're in the mode right now where we hope to have it clinched by the eighth race. We know that's not going to happen, but that's the attitude you've got to have. We want to go out and win the first eight races and go into the last two cruisin' and partyin' after already getting it done."

At the same time, Grubb made it clear that he's not focused solely on beating Stewart in the Chase. That, he said, would be a mistake.

"You're here to win races," Grubb said. "That's what we want to do regardless. We want to beat all 42 other competitors. As soon as you start singling out one, you're going to lose focus on what the overall goals are."

Tony Stewart bid Darian Grubb adieu after three years, 11 wins and one championship. (Getty Images)


A cruel good-bye

Grubb said he's never been given a good reason for why Stewart decided to let him go last season. The decision was revealed to Grubb four races into the Chase -- at Charlotte in October -- after the No. 14 Chevrolet team already had won the first two Chase races. But Stewart indicated it had been in the works long before that, even if he remains vague about his precise reasons for replacing Grubb with Steve Addington. Stewart later added his former crew chief from JGR, Greg Zipadelli, to his SHR organization as director of competition.

"I don't think we gave up on him, as much as we needed a change," Stewart said of replacing Grubb. "The end result ended up working out exactly how we wanted [with the championship], but we still needed to make that change. It's hard for everybody to understand, because there was more to it than face value. There were other things that were involved in it that went into making the decision to make a change at the end of the year."


2011 season splits
WinsFirst 26Chase 10
Fin. 21-worse61
Laps Led340573

Stewart declined to elaborate further. Grubb said he's never pushed much for more information from Stewart, either, even though the two remain friendly.

"I've never been given a reason. And honestly, I'm not sure if there is one," Grubb said. "Tony and I are still good friends. At Richmond [last weekend], he came up in the bus with me and hung out with the wife and kids. Still, it's one of those things that's a little bittersweet. I'm still friends with him, but I'm still not sure what happened or why.

"It's the direction they chose to go, and I'm sure 90 percent of it had to do with Zipadelli and Addington being able to come in and put the band back together -- and I wasn't part of that crowd."

Now Stewart, the defending championship driver, knows that he could be beaten by Grubb, his former ally who is the defending championship crew chief. It is an interesting dynamic, to be sure, and one that Stewart insisted he saw coming as a very real possibility as soon as Grubb and Hamlin were paired, only days after Stewart and Grubb had attempted to celebrate their 2011 championship together at NASCAR's end-of-the-year banquet in Las Vegas.

"You obviously know if you make a change like that, that that guy can go out and beat you," Stewart said. "I knew when they signed him up with Denny, that that was going to be a good pairing. I know Darian and I know Denny well enough that I knew they were going to have good chemistry together. But you've got to do what you think as an owner to try to give yourself the best opportunity to have success. You don't look back; you don't say, 'What if?' You just try to look ahead and say, 'OK, what do I have to do to get better now?' "

As for the Grubb-Hamlin pairing, Stewart added: "I just think their approach is very similar. Darian is a very technical guy, and Denny's very technical when it comes to his car. So I think that communication, when it comes down to it, makes for a good pairing."

Denny Hamlin celebrates the win at Atlanta that led to the top seed in the Chase with his girlfriend, Jordan Fish. (Getty Images)


The new Denny

Hamlin said he knew a change was needed for his team after they struggled to a ninth-place finish in last year's Chase. After winning a total of 12 races in the previous two seasons with longtime crew chief Mike Ford, Hamlin and Ford won only one together last season.

"Obviously after last season, some kind of change had to be made to refresh our team," Hamlin said. "When we found out Darian was available, we were of course one of a handful of teams that wanted to get him. I knew our biggest competitor for hiring him or not was going to be Hendrick [Motorsports].

"Darian just came off a championship and had a son [Gavin], and had another child [daughter, Gabriella, who was born nine weeks ago] on the way. So my question to him was, 'Is the motivation there to win another championship? You've just won it and a lot of times that takes your motivation away.' He assured me that he wanted to win one with me as bad as anything, to show the outside world what he's capable of."

In short, Hamlin added: "We both have something to prove. I feel like stat-wise, I'm as good as any driver out there but I don't have a championship. So I'm always going to be the LeBron [James of NASCAR] until I get my ring."

Grubb said he wanted to make certain he went to a team that was ready to pursue a championship immediately. He also said he believes Hamlin has "matured five years" just since the beginning of this season, in part because Hamlin has learned that he and his girlfriend have their own baby daughter on the way.

"I think he's starting to realize, now that he's going to become a father, that it touches every part of your life, whether you want it to or not," Grubb said. "Denny's always had a lot of his family around all the time. His mom and dad are always at the race track. And now that he's got a baby girl coming along, I think he's excited about it and a little scared, too.

"But he knows he has myself and some other fathers within this team. We all pick on him and joke with him. We show him the poopy-diaper pictures and tell him, 'This is what you've got to look forward to.' But we also tell him stories about all the best parts of it, too, and I think he's looking forward to that next chapter in his life."

Grubb said being a father and dedicated family man is what keeps him grounded.

"Racing is important. It's our job and we do the best we can every day at it," Grubb said. "But when you can walk out of [the race track] and play Matchbox cars with your kid for 15 minutes, all is right with the world. Then you can go back and refocus on what you have to do -- because you've removed that stress from your life. It's very useful in what you're trying to accomplish."

Denny Hamlin has made the Chase in each of his seven full seasons in the 11 car, but he has unfinished business. (Getty Images)


Ring is the thing

What Hamlin and Grubb are trying to accomplish together is obvious. They want to win it all.

Hamlin said he's never really talked with Grubb about what happened with SHR last season. He had his own issues to deal with at the end of last season, as well, going off on his own for about six weeks to "get his head right" after the near-miss in 2010 and the disappointment of 2011.

"Usually something goes on in the internal world of a race team that brings about that point," Hamlin said of Grubb's departure from SHR. "But I've never asked Darian what happened. It's probably an uncomfortable situation for him to talk about. You saw how emotional he was at the championship banquet.

Denny Hamlin

Regular-season ranks
Laps Led8992
Lead-Lap Fin.18T-9
Avg. Start11.07
Avg. Finish12.69
Avg. Running Pos.10.4795
Driver Rating101.84
Pre-Chase Points8508

"I just told him that I would have his back and I would do everything I could to give him the time he needs and drive as hard as I could for him. To me, when he chose me as his driver when there were all these other people who wanted him, it gave me the confidence that I'm a championship-caliber driver."

The driver said they always find plenty to talk about, even away from racing.

"I think our personalities are similar," Hamlin said. "He doesn't expect a whole lot of me time-wise, but he gets the most out of me, I guess you could say. I feel like I've probably been in my crew chief's office less this year than I ever have. But during my time at the track, I've spent more time with him -- and I think that's been really valuable.

"We're both from Virginia. We both grew up with the same short-track background. We know all the same guys. We have a lot of things in common and a lot we can talk about. So for me, it just took half a season to get our communication [on the track] down."

In addition to winning four races overall and two of the past three, Hamlin has finished second three times and third once this season. Grubb said Hamlin has heeded a message that he delivered to him immediately upon his arrival with the team this past December.

"As I came in this year, he knew he needed to get focused and be a bigger part of the team as far as driving the attitude and the mentality of everybody on the team," Grubb said. "So now he's staying pumped up and positive all the time. You can't recreate that. Everybody sees that, sees the passion he has for what he's doing -- and it's hard for them not to get fired up about having a chance to win, because they know the driver's coming in feeling that he can do it every week.

"I think it was something he realized during that time he went off on his own. I think he realized what he was missing -- the camaraderie and unity you need to compete against guys like Jimmie [Johnson] and Chad [Knaus]. You see that all the time. You just know you have to be a unit. You can't just be one person in this fight."

Grubb learned that last season. He said there are times when he still can't believe how last year's Chase went down, with the five wins for his team and then the pink slip that followed.

"It's one of those things that's still surreal," Grubb said. "It's one of those things where you always hope to top it. But then again, I don't want to go through that much drama again to win a championship, either."