It didn’t take long for the new crew chief-driver combination at Joe Gibbs Racing to start paying dividends. Crew chief Darian Grubb and driver Denny Hamlin won in just their second race at Phoenix on Sunday, and in doing so moved into first place in the point standings.
It was about four months ago that Grubb was helping Tony Stewart to his third Sprint Cup championship, but during the10- race Chase he was told that he would not be returning as Stewart’s crew chief for this season. That left the 2011 Sprint Cup champion crew chief looking for a job at a time when most of the positions were already filled for this season.
It was an odd ending indeed for what many believe was the greatest championship run by any driver-crew chief combination in the history of the sport, but their fate had already been determined long before they hoisted the championship trophy. Grubb, as you would imagine, became one of the hottest free agents in the sport and that included all of the drivers that were available for 2012.
While all of this was taking place at Stewart-Haas Racing near the end of the season, JGR’s Denny Hamlin was finishing up one of the worst years of his career. The poor showing followed his stellar 2010 season that saw him go into the last race of the season leading the points before finishing second to five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
After such a successful 2010 season, Hamlin entered last season as one of the drivers that would be in line to deny Jimmie Johnson his sixth consecutive Sprint Cup title. Mike Ford had been the only crew chief that Denny Hamlin had ever had since he had been competing at the Cup level, and the two had 17 victories on their resume together. There was no sign that the two wouldn’t once again compete for wins and the championship when the 2010 season got underway, but the duo never was able to show the kind of consistency that had made them title contenders in years before.
Hamlin, by his own admission, felt that some of their problems stemmed from coming so close to winning the title in 2010 that it created a little hangover for the poor start of the season. Some may even say that the team just felt sorry for itself, but this is one sport that if you stop for just a minute to lick your wounds the rest of the field not only catches you, but they quickly move on past you.
The team did make the Chase last season, but it never threatened to once again become a true contender and basically just ran out the string of 10 races waiting for the season to be over. It was time for the two to part ways and with the opportunity for JGR to sign a championship crew chief to what was once one of the best teams in the sport, the organization wasted very little time in naming Grubb as Hamlin’s crew chief for this season.
The new combination has wasted very little time showing the rest of the series that the two might just be the right fit for each other. Hamlin finished fourth at Daytona and, after backing that up with the win on Sunday, he now has a six-point lead over Greg Biffle in the standings. If last year taught us anything, it was that every point is precious with the new point system that was introduced last season.
Their early season success may or may not continue, but you can’t help but think that the two will continue to be competitive and, with the vast resources that JGR can provide to the team, it should be a contender for the title as the season unfolds.
PIT NOTES: The best stat I found after Phoenix was Grubb’s record over the last 12 Sprint Cup races spanning the end of last season and the start of 2012. He has won six of those races with five of those coming in the pressurepacked Chase last season.
Event: Kobalt Tools 400
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
(1.5-mile tri-oval, 20 degrees of
banking in the turns)
Date: March 11, 3 p.m.
Defending Champion: Carl Edwards