It is a common occurrence in every major sport that as soon as the season is over, those teams that failed to win the championship begin making the changes that they feel will bring them the title the following year. Sprint Cup racing is no different, but in this sport no team, regardless of where it has finished, is immune from the yearly changes that are as much a part of the sport as two-car drafting is to Talladega.
Of course, no change that has been or will be announced will echo through the series as much as when Tony Stewart announced that Darian Grubb would not be returning as his crew chief in 2012. Stewart felt that a change was needed after his team had struggled for much of the year, and with a championship in hand Grubb suddenly became the biggest free agent in the garage area.
Grubb had a long relationship with Hendrick Motorsports before ever moving over to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009. While at HMS, he was the lead engineer for Chad Knaus and filled in for him as acting crew chief for Jimmy Johnson’s 2006 Daytona 500 win. The move to Stewart’s operation was somewhat easy for Grubb as the organization got its cars and engines from Hendrick.
After his release from Stewart- Haas, many in the sport felt that Grubb would land back with Hendrick but with no crew chief jobs available, he quickly became the biggest name available for next season. Not many in the sport can shop themselves around with the latest championship trophy under their arm, but that was exactly what made Grubb so attractive as a team’s new crew chief for next season.
Apparently he had talked to several owners once the season was over, but it was Joe Gibbs who will retain his services for next season as it was announced this past week that he would be taking over for Mike Ford as crew chief for Denny Hamlin. Ford and Hamlin had been together for six seasons, and during that time the two had won 17 races and had made six consecutive appearances in the Chase.
Those are great numbers in this sport, but this past season his total of five top-5 finishes was the lowest of his career and his 14 top-10 finishes was also a career low. Those numbers come after the 2010 season that saw him win eight races and take the points lead into the final race of the season over eventual series champion Jimmie Johnson.
The hangover from that near miss continued into this season as the two could not regain the form that had made them one of the favorites to compete for this year’s title. Ford now becomes the next attractive free agent crew chief looking for a job. That job will not be with Stewart as he wasted very little time in naming Steve Addington as his crew chief for next season.
Addington was crew chief for Penske Racing’s Kurt Busch this past season, who is now looking for a ride for 2012 as he was relieved of his driving duties this past week, leaving Penske to look for both a driver and crew chief for next season. Penske has solid sponsorship in Shell already in place and should be able to attract both a top driver and crew chief to once again put that team back into the Chase.
David Ragan has already met with Roger Penske and is also scheduled to meet with Shell officials later this week about the opening. Ragan had somewhat of a breakout year in the sport while driving for Roush-Fenway Racing this past season as he posted his first-ever win in the Coke Zero 400 in July at Daytona after earlier winning the Sprint Showdown that secured him a starting position in the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte.
Roush-Fenway was unable to secure sponsorship for him for the 2012 season, leaving him free to pursue other rides. There were no full time quality rides open until Busch’s seat became available and while there are still plenty of drivers looking for a ride for next season, it could be that Ragan has the inside track on what has always been one of the best rides in the series.