It took last year’s champion crew chief only two races to take a different driver to Victory Lane in 2012. Darian Grubb is showing why he was such a hot commodity in the off-season. Grubb didn’t get the credit he deserved for leading Tony Stewart to the title in 2011, but if Denny Hamlin continues running like he has in the first two races of 2012, the former SHR head wrench may finally get that much deserved credit.
Grubb is certainly the hottest crew chief in the garage right now. Here are the drivers and teams that are hot and a few that are not.
Before the Daytona 500, when was the last time Denny Hamlin was even in position to win a race? It had been a while. 2011 was a frustrating season for the No. 11 team, but 2012 is starting took a lot like 2010, when Hamlin won eight races and stood in contention for the championship heading into Homestead.
So far, the Virginia-native led 57 laps before coming home fourth at Daytona. He led 61 more on the way to a win at Phoenix. Crew chief Grubb is back in a familiar position, sitting atop the Sprint Cup standings.
Only two drivers have recorded top-5 finishes in each of the first two races. The first is Hamlin and the second is Greg Biffle. After qualifying on the outside pole for the Daytona 500, Biffle ran at the front all race and came home third.
He didn’t run at the front of the field all day at Phoenix, but Biffle got there when it mattered, resulting in his second straight third-place finish. After missing the Chase last season, the No. 16 team has a lot to prove in 2012, and so far no one, besides Hamlin, has gotten out of the gates hotter than Biffle.
Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin are quietly lingering in sixth place (tied) in the Sprint Cup standings. Martin Truex Jr. racked up four top-10s in the final five races of 2011, and the No. 56 team has carried that momentum into 2012.
The upcoming schedule could soon move Truex Jr. into the hot category. He was sixth at Las Vegas in 2011 and finished runner-up to Brad Keselowski the last time the series visited Bristol.
Martin has been equally as impressive as his Michael Waltrip Racing teammate. The 53-year-old is only planning on running 25 races in 2012, but after qualifying on the pole at Phoenix and recording top-10s in each of the first two races, Martin may soon be rethinking that plan.
Jimmie Johnson had about as bad of a week a driver could possibly have at Daytona. He wrecked in the Bud Shootout and barely got a lap in the 500 before he was turned into the outside wall. And then there are the already infamous C-post penalties that were levied against the No. 48 team after the 500. Chad Knaus and Ron Malec were each suspended six races and Knaus was issued a $100,000 fine. On top of that, Johnson entered Phoenix with -23 points after a 25-point penalty.
Even after all that adversity, didn’t it seem like Johnson was the favorite to win on Sunday? We’ve seen the No. 48 team rise above before and when Johnson took the lead early at Phoenix, it sure seemed like they were going to do it again. He had one of the strongest cars all day and ended up fourth. He currently sits 45 points out of the Chase, but if there is one team that can make up that gap, it is this one.
More analysts have picked Tony Stewart to win races so far this season than any other driver, and all of those analysts have come up disappointed. Stewart has yet to even crack the top-15.
The late charge everyone expected from Smoke at the end of the 500 never happened, and after qualifying second at Phoenix, Stewart ended up 22nd. While mechanical issues were to blame for the poor finish, Stewart wasn’t going to be a factor for the win either way.
To make matters worse for Smoke, his former crew chief Grubb led Hamlin to a win in race two.
Stewart’s biggest competitor in the 2011 Chase, Carl Edwards, hasn’t fared much better than Stewart. After placing third in the desert last fall, Edwards was a non-factor on Sunday, fighting to a 17th-place finish as the last car on the lead lap.
Edwards finished eighth at Daytona, but never contended for the win with his Roush Fenway teammates Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Las Vegas, the site of Edwards’ lone victory in 2011, should provide a measuring stick as to where the No. 99 team truly is.
A.J. Allmendinger was another driver who had an experience at Daytona worth forgetting. A bad week was capped off when the No. 22 car crashed into Ryan Newman’s three-wheeler on pit road.
Unfortunately for Allmendinger, Phoenix wasn’t worth remembering either.
The No. 22 remained off the pace most of the day at a track, the ‘Dinger has enjoyed success at in the past. As Hamlin crossed the line for the win Sunday, Allmendinger could be seen in the background one lap down in 18th. With high expectations resting on his shoulders, the first two races of 2012 have been a struggle for one of the off-season’s biggest movers.
Kasey Kahne may get his own category called freezing. His No. 5 was involved in accidents in all three races and a practice session in his debut for Hendrick Motorsports at Daytona.
Week 2 didn’t go any better. Kahne was running second on lap 21 when he got loose off of turn four, and over-corrected the No. 5 car right into the outside wall. He finished 34th and only sits seven points ahead of his teammate Johnson, who entered the race with -23 points.
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