Darian Grubb has a new nickname in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage these days: King Midas.
Everything he’s touched lately has turned to gold. Last year, he led Tony Stewart to an improbable third series title with five victories in the final 10 races, despite knowing that once the echoes faded, he was out of a job.
Transferring over to the No. 11 FedEx Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing, Grubb found a home, and on Sunday, he found Victory Lane for the first time with driver Denny Hamlin.
The way it’s trending, it won’t be the last, and there’s another example of Grubb’s presence turning slag into the mother lode. Hamlin’s team, led by Mike Ford, came within a whisker of winning the title in 2010, leading after Phoenix and needing only to hold serve to knock Jimmie Johnson off the throne and start the reign of King Denny I.
It didn’t quite work out that way, and at the end of a rather off-kilter 2011 season, Ford was dismissed despite making the Chase again. The team won just one race, at Michigan, and was a shadow of its former self.
All it took, apparently, was Grubb’s arrival for the team to rediscover its former pep, and it had to be one of those “I told you so” moments for the soft-spoken Virginian…not that he’d ever let on as such.
“I guess you could say it is a little bit of vindication, but I really don’t think that way,” Grubb demurred. “I try to just think the high road all the time. I feel like I came into a very good situation. Mike Ford built one heck of a team here with the 11 car, and the FedEx Toyota is obviously really strong, Joe Gibbs’ organization is very strong.
“We’re a united team. We’re working together that way, and we are just going to keep doing it.”
Hamlin, who has a reputation as being somewhat tempestuous in the driver-crew chief relationship, has to be licking his chops at what could be in store.
“This is the first chance that me and him [Grubb] have to work together in a race situation where he’s going to have to make a lot of adjustments, and needless to say, it was going forward the entire day,” Hamlin said after Victory Lane. “It’s still a learning process between me and Darian. The communication has still got a long way to go, and he’s going to have to figure out my measurements and all that stuff of how much he needs to work on the car.
“But to have the success this early just tells me that once we get things down pat, it’s going to be pretty good.”
You might remember Grubb also has a Daytona 500 trophy on the mantle at his house. He won that in 2006 while subbing for Chad Knaus while the latter was serving a suspension for non-NASCAR-approved finagling with the rear window on the No. 48 car.
That’s the year that Johnson won his only Daytona 500, too. On the heels of the out-of-nowhere series title in 2011, Grubb is getting a big rep.
“Obviously he comes in a with a lot of knowledge,” Hamlin said. “The biggest thing I learned early on is his team building, the way he helps get all the guys surrounded about one goal, and so that’s the biggest thing that I’ve noticed is how tuned he is with the race team, and obviously we’ve got everyone behind us within our 11 team, and JGR right now believing in the thought process that Darian has.”
One of the most important thought processes was, of course, how to deal with a driver with undeniable talent and a mercurial nature. Apparently, that was job one for Grubb, who knows a thing or two about drivers with an edge.
“Obviously when he has faith in me, that he feels like he can win a championship with me, after all the choices he had in the offseason, that gives me a lot of confidence, and those two are just meshing well right now,” Hamlin said.
Grubb came to Stewart-Haas Racing from Hendrick Motorsports, which provides the cars and engines for SHR. He was brought in because of his knowledge of the equipment and his background in development and engineering.
When he got to Gibbs, there was some thought that there would be a transition period while he learned a whole new organization.
It lasted two races.
Grubb said it was a transition, in a couple of different ways.
“I’d say easier and harder because at least when I was transitioning into that [SHR] I knew the equipment,” Grubb said. “I was very familiar with that, with everything. That’s the main reason they brought me in is I knew what tools and people we were dealing with.
“Now this is just all new tools and all new people, but it’s still the same job. Luckily they have a very strong organization already. I don’t need to change any of those things, it’s coming in and learning the people and learning how to get the best out of all those individuals, and the pieces and parts are there.”
Not only is Grubb earning a reputation as a crew chief who knows which way to go when adjustments are needed, he’s gaining a lot of attention for his ability to slide into situations that are difficult at best and fix them up, right as rain.
Such is the case with Hamlin, who suffered a soul-crushing reversal at Phoenix in 2010 that ended up costing him his best shot at a title thus far in his career.
It’s all about chemistry.
“It’s still going to build,” Hamlin said of his relationship with Grubb. “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. 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, like Darian said, a testament to JGR and the steps it’s taken in the offseason. 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.”
That JGR won three titles in a five-year span from 2000 to 2005. If it’s the JGR of old, Darian Grubb’s fingerprints will be all over the action plan that got it back on track.
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