CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Darian Grubb sure hasn’t missed a beat since he was unceremoniously fired by Tony Stewart.
The crew chief made yet another trip to Victory Lane on Sunday when he guided Denny Hamlin to the win at Phoenix in just their second race together. Dating back to last season, Grubb has won six of the last 12 races.
Yet he found himself out of work a week after leading Stewart to last season’s championship. Stewart won five of the 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races to win the title, but the driver-owner had made up his mind midway through the Chase to replace Grubb at the end of the season.
Grubb didn’t last long on the free agent market — the joke in NASCAR was every job in the garage was available for him, except, of course, the one he had. Joe Gibbs Racing snapped him up to help guide Hamlin out of a season-long slump. Their win at Phoenix, where Hamlin effectively lost the 2010 championship, proved both driver and crew chief have something to prove.
“I guess you could say it is 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. I feel like I came into a very good situation.”
Grubb then praised Mike Ford, who was crew chief for all six of Hamlin’s seasons in the Cup series and came oh-so-close to taking Hamlin to the championship. The No. 11 team won eight races in 2010 and had Jimmie Johnson on the ropes when they rolled into Phoenix, the penultimate race of the season.
Hamlin was headed to the win, too, until a fuel miscalculation forced a late pit stop and allowed Johnson back into the title race. Emotionally drained, Hamlin didn’t put up a fight in the season finale the next week, and Johnson rolled to his record fifth consecutive title.
The hangover lasted most of last season as Hamlin won just one race and barely made the Chase — something he’s done every year of his career. When Grubb became available, team owner Joe Gibbs grabbed him in hopes of shaking up one of the stronger teams in the garage.
Hamlin still speaks highly of Ford and knew outsiders had a hard time understanding why a change was needed.
“I think everyone just felt like it had run its course,” Hamlin said last month at Daytona. “It was just time. We had made it last longer than most relationships. I feel like versus going out there and doing 2012 like 2011 all over again, and then both of our resumes getting messed up, let’s just end it the way we did. He’s one of the best crew chiefs I’ve ever dealt with — no doubt about it.”
Ford left such a strong core group at JGR, that Grubb has settled in remarkably fast.
Hamlin ran fourth in the season-opening Daytona 500 and might have had a chance to race for the win if he’d been able to put a plan together with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second. After struggling most of Friday at Phoenix, the team turned it around to get Hamlin the win that moves him into the Sprint Cup Series points lead.
“Mike Ford built one heck of a team here with the 11 car, and the FedEx Toyota is obviously really strong. The Joe Gibbs organization is very strong,” Grubb said.
Before Daytona, Hamlin figured it would take “seven races, realistically, before (Grubb) fully understands me and understands what I’m talking about.”
He did not update that timetable after the victory.
“I honestly feel like it’s going to be realistically two months before we’re totally clicking and knowing exactly what each other is saying and talking about,” he said. “So to have success early tells me that we’ve obviously got a good pairing here. But for me, I think that this is also a testament to JGR and the steps it’s taken in the offseason.”
Indeed, Sunday was strong for the entire JGR organization. Kyle Busch was sixth, and Joey Logano was 10th. And all three JGR cars go into Las Vegas this weekend ranked inside the top 10 in points. It’s the first time the organization has been able to boast that since the 2008 season finale, when Hamlin was eighth, Tony Stewart ninth and Busch 10th in the final standings.
Hamlin believes it’s proof of the offseason work.
”All three cars in the top 10 and all three being competitive all day long is something that we struggled with the second half of last season, so we’re at least getting back to being the JGR of old,” Hamlin said.