Tony Stewart arrived in Las Vegas no stranger to sitting at the head table for NASCAR’s annual awards banquet. Last Friday was the third time in his career that Stewart occupied the most prestigious seat of the evening, but somehow you got the feeling he was enjoying this one somewhat more than his previous two trips.
After all, this was the first time he had not only won the title as a driver but also was going to be recognized for his effort as the winning owner. Unlike the two championships he won while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, this year’s title had his handprints all over it. He, along with a very close group of associates, handpicked those that would start up Stewart- Haas Racing and, as it turned out, in three years would bring the organization a Sprint Cup championship.
It has been said so often in sports that many times it is not only the arriving at the pinnacle of your sport that is so special but maybe more so the striving to get to that point. Those words may have never been as fitting for any other champion than Stewart and his crew chief Darian Grubb.
Stewart and Grubb may have ended as the champions, but their season-long journey was anything but what you would call the dream season. The two got off to a fast start and actually were in the points lead after the third race of the season, but in a matter of weeks their performance had started to slip to the point that they fell outside of the top 10. That is where Stewart seemed to stay for the rest of the 26-race schedule leading up to the Chase. The pair never did find their way to victory lane during this part of the season and limped into the Chase in the ninth position.
Stewart entered the Chase as he said “taking up space,” and unknown to all but a handful of people had already made the decision that Grubb would not return as his crew chief in 2012. Grubb was not informed of the decision at that time, and as the Chase began the team started to click as they won the first two races on the 10-race Chase schedule. The hot start was tempered by a couple of bad outings at Dover and Kansas and when the series rolled into Charlotte for race No. 5, Grubb was told that he would not be coming back.
Most teams would have folded their tent at that point, but Grubb and Stewart took the approach that they would finish what they started together and, oh, what a finish they had. He won again at Martinsville and Texas and by the time the two went to Miami for the last race of the season they trailed Carl Edwards by three points. We all know how that ended with Stewart winning the race and in the process clinching the title.
The celebration on pit road that day was as awkward as what took place in Vegas last week. Tony, as you would expect, was his jovial self and rightfully so, but it was Grubb that showed the sport what made him a championship crew chief.
Even with all of the success that Grubb had experienced in the Chase and winning the title, his finest hour may very well have been the speech he gave at the Myers Brothers luncheon prior to the championship banquet. It was there he gave a very personal and heartfelt speech that moved those in attendance. It had to be hard for a champion who will not have the opportunity to defend his title next season.
Grubb may not get the opportunity to defend his title with Stewart, but you can’t help but think he will land in a quality operation that will give him another opportunity to win a title. His history with Hendrick Motorsports further enhances his resume as a crew chief or in another capacity as someone that knows how to win races and championships.
There is no word on where Grubb will be in 2012, but Stewart has already announced his crew chief going forward will be Steve Addington. Both Grubb and Stewart will now go their separate ways, but they will forever be linked to one of the most unlikely championship runs in the history of the Sprint Cup racing.