CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The hottest crew chief in NASCAR was available, and yet Denny Hamlin wasn’t sure he wanted him to lead his race team.
Darian Grubb was out of work just days after guiding Tony Stewart to last year’s championship. Stewart won the title with five victories in the final 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup races — and Stewart let him go before they even collected the trophy.
Grubb had job offers from all over the garage, but Hamlin wasn’t convinced he was the best fit for the No. 11 team.
Hamlin had been with Mike Ford for his entire Sprint Cup Series career, and he didn’t necessarily need to make a change. True, he was coming off a flat 2011 season after nearly winning the title the year before, but there wasn’t a pressing need to replace Ford.
But Joe Gibbs Racing was enticed by Grubb, even if Hamlin had to be convinced the crew chief was still motivated to chase another championship.
“I was a little more apprehensive that he did just win the championship. I knew that he was mulling offers of not being a crew chief anymore,” Hamlin said. “So that scared me a little bit that, ‘Hey, what’s his drive to go out here and win a championship with me?’ He’s just won the championship. He’s got nothing to prove.”
Hamlin was wrong.
Although Grubb has insisted from the start he’s not seeking any sort of revenge against Stewart or validation from the industry, he has done a tremendous job this season.
He led Hamlin to a dominating win last Sunday at New Hampshire, a victory that goes down as Grubb’s sixth in 12 Chase races dating to last season. Hamlin won a series-best four races during the “regular season” to earn the top seed in the Chase, and the New Hampshire win was a huge lift after a mistake cost the team critical points in the opener.
Hamlin and Grubb now go to Dover — the third race in the Chase — ranked third in the standings and seven points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
Stewart, meanwhile, has three wins on the season and is fourth in the Chase standings, 10 points out of the lead.
Neither Grubb or Stewart discuss in any real detail what led to their split. Hamlin said he doesn’t ask.
“As many times as I’ve been in a hauler with him and they’ve talked about crew chief changes on the TV right here in front of him, I always think it is an awkward situation for him,” Hamlin said. “But he’s never brought up that, ‘I just want to beat him,’ or anything like that. It’s always focused on our team and what he needs to be better.”
Stewart’s decision to release Grubb came weeks before they won the championship, and he didn’t change his mind even after winning three of the final four races of the season. Stewart isn’t one to wonder if he let a great crew chief slip away, and he’s content with Steve Addington.
“I know Darian and I know Denny enough to know that they were going to have good chemistry together,” Stewart said before the Chase opener. “But you have 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 sit there and say, ‘What if?’ You sit there and work on your program and try to figure out what you have to do now.”
And he understands that letting Grubb go can come back to bite him during this Chase.
“You obviously know that if you make a change like that, that that guy can go out and beat you,” Stewart said.
After a lunch meeting with Grubb, Hamlin was convinced that the crew chief had enough fire to lead his team for several years. And of all the jobs being offered — including a management position at Hendrick Motorsports, where Grubb had been before joining Stewart — he thought Hamlin was the best fit.
“He assured me that he felt like I would give him his best chance at winning a championship, and he had something to prove,” Hamlin said. “He wanted to win another championship. He just didn’t want to go out the way things ended.”