LOUDON, N.H. — The ring he won for last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship sits in a safe in his North Carolina home now. But Darian Grubb does not sit around admiring his bauble.
As crew chief for Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing, Grubb has plenty on his plate these days and little time to dwell on past achievements.
“The last time I looked at it was the day I got it,’’ Grubb said. “At some point, we’ll have a little display case built up. If nothing else, it’ll be a family heirloom I can pass down to my son.’’
While it remains treasured, the ring is also a bittersweet reminder of one of the most professionally rewarding and challenging years of Grubb’s career as a NASCAR crew chief, one in which he was released from his job at Stewart-Haas Racing midway through last year’s Chase.
After he learned of his dismissal following a 15th-place finish in the Chase race at Kansas, Grubb remained unbowed atop the pit box as a lame-duck crew chief for owner/driver Tony Stewart. He presided over Stewart’s third Sprint Cup title in one of the more stunning championship finishes in Chase history.
Although they won five of the 10 Chase races together, including three of the last four in addition to last year’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Stewart’s championship run did not reverse the decision to part ways with Grubb.
“The end result that happened worked out exactly like we were wanting, but we still needed to make that change,’’ Stewart said during Chase media day last week in Chicago. “It’s hard for everybody to understand because there is more to it than face value. There were other things that were involved in it that went into the decision to make a change.
“You obviously know that if you make a change like that, that that guy can go out and beat you.’’
That fear seemed to come to fruition when Hamlin was installed as the top seed among the 12-man field for last weekend’s Chase opener, while Stewart was seeded third. Although Hamlin ended the regular season seventh in the points, he climbed six spots by virtue of his series-high four wins.
So when the teams descended upon Chicagoland Speedway, it wasn’t lost on Grubb when his team’s No. 11 hauler was parked alongside Stewart’s No. 14 hauler.
“It was interesting being parked beside those guys in the garage, competing for the Chase,’’ Grubb said. “It’s kind of bittersweet but fun as well, because it’s like reuniting with family when you’re working right next to the guys you worked with last year.’’
And that’s what made parting with Stewart-Haas Racing so difficult for Grubb. His emotions came pouring out in a gripping speech he made at the Myers Brothers Awards banquet last December in Las Vegas where Grubb was recognized as Crew Chief of the Year.
After parting with his own crew chief, Mike Ford, at the end of last year, Hamlin sat in the audience in rapt attention during Grubb’s acceptance speech, thinking, “How does this guy not have a job?’’ and “Can we get him?’’
“That’s why Las Vegas was such a hard time for me, personally and emotionally and everything else,’’ Grubb said. “My wife was pregnant at the time and we had a baby on the way, so we were struggling with that knowing that I was jobless, while trying to celebrate the fact that we pulled off the ultimate feat of winning the championship.
“It was the ultimate goal in my entire career, but also being worried about the future and providing for my family and not being able to enjoy that because of the stress of those things going on, it was a tough time for me.’’
Grubb’s shiny championship ring provided little consolation.
“I still have never really been given a good reason about what was going on there,’’ Grubb said of his dismissal. “I just took it at face value and said, ‘All right, well, regardless I’ve got to go on and start the next chapter in my life.’ ”
Grubb went home after the awards banquet and reset his career priorities. He knew he still wanted to be a crew chief, but he refused to go to work for just any team. It had to be a championship-caliber one.
“When I got the call from Coach Gibbs saying they were interested in talking to me, I was ecstatic,’’ Grubb said. “Because it was one of the top [teams] I listed I wanted to work with.’’
The tight-knit family atmosphere at Gibbs Racing appealed to Grubb, as did the opportunity to work with Hamlin, who led the Chase going into the finale in 2010 only to finish runner-up to five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
When he met Hamlin for the first time, Grubb said, “The biggest thing I wanted to get out of that was what was his passion for going out and winning a championship. Was he still just kind of dwelling on being bummed out that they weren’t contenders in 2011 as much as they wanted to be?
“I was basically picking his brain on what he thought went wrong and what he thought was missing to be back in that championship form and could I be a part of that?’’
“Of all the teams that tried to get him as a crew chief and the teams that tried to get him back, he chose me and my crew,’’ Hamlin said. “He thought I gave him the best shot at a championship and I thought the same thing. He gives me confidence and there is so much that goes into winning a championship.’’
Was Hamlin curious why things didn’t work out for Grubb at Stewart-Haas?
“Still to this day I’ve never asked him about his relationship with Tony,’’ Hamlin said. “I just think it was one of those things he prefers to keep in his past. The only thing I asked him was, ‘What the heck did you do to your cars for the last 10 races last year?’ So we’ve got that in our hip pocket and we’ll see if it works out.’’
Hamlin and Grubb forged an immediate bond, with early-season wins at Phoenix and Kansas. At New Hampshire, however, a pit road miscommunication between Hamlin and Grubb proved to be their undoing after leading a race-high 150 laps.
Hamlin asked for a two-tire change, but Grubb misunderstood and called for a four-tire change, which cost the race leader precious track position.
“We are clear in what we want to do when we have that situation again in New Hampshire,’’ Hamlin said. “We are taking two [tires].’’
Hamlin’s team suffered another mistake at NHMS during Friday’s pole qualifications for the Sylvania 300 when his car, which was fastest during practice, wound up qualifying poorly (32d) after a miscalculation on tire pressure. “We’ll rebound from it,’’ the driver said.
Grubb would like nothing more than to redeem himself for the July miscue by helping Hamlin win his first championship. If he were to do so, he’d become the first crew chief in NASCAR history to win back-to-back titles with different drivers.
“I’d want to win back-to-back regardless, just to be able to say we were able to pull it off,’’ Grubb said. “For me, last year was in the past. I’ve got the championship ring from that and everything there was a check on my bucket list and now this year is a whole new season to be excited about and we want to go out and do the same thing.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.