The first thing that crossed my mind when Denny Hamlin ran away from the field and left Kevin Harvick's car choking for gas on Sunday was: wow, another win for Darian Grubb!
Grubb has now crew chiefed victories in six of the last 12 Sprint Cup Series races. That includes five wins during last year's Chase as Tony Stewart's head man and the win at Phoenix this past weekend, as he called the shots for Hamlin.
Together, the two Virginia natives (Hamlin and Grubb) are back in a familiar spot: Victory Lane. For Grubb, it was a short absence of a single race. For Hamlin, it was a whole lot more.
Hamlin seemed poised to unseat four-time champ Jimmie Johnson back in 2010 and led the standings entering the season's final race at Homestead. He crumpled, however, as he watched his 15-point lead slip to a 39-point deficit by day's end, and he never got back on the lead lap in the 2011 season.
Last year, he seemed to waiver between disappointing and disinterested. He won just a single race and posted a mere five top-five finishes. (By comparison, he'd won eight races with fourteen top-fives in 2010.) As a result, Joe Gibbs Racing decided to let go of Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, and pursued Darian Grubb, who was also being pitched by Hendrick Motorsports (for a non-crew chief position).
For the most part, Grubb's 2011 season mimicked that of Hamlin's. While Hamlin snuck into the Chase as a Wild Card with 744 points and a single win, Grubb's No. 14 team backed into the ninth of ten automatic bids with 788 points and zero wins. His driver, Stewart, was open before the Chase started in stating that the team didn't even deserve to be in NASCAR's postseason.
Stewart changed things quickly by taking the Chase's first two checkered flags, but when things sputtered mid-Chase for the No. 14 team, Grubb was told he wouldn't return in 2012. After the decision, Stewart made his historic run with three wins (and a third-place finish) in the last four races to win the closest Chase in history. Yet, Stewart-Haas Racing stuck to its word and dismissed Grubb.
Two races into 2012, Grubb has already won another race and collected a top-five in the other one. The reigning Champ, on the other hand, has struggled with 16th and 22nd-place finishes, including an issue where his car wouldn't re-fire.
"I guess you could say it's a little bit of vindication, but I really don't think that way," Grubb said after the race. "I try to just think the high road all the time."
It's a young season. It's far too early to criticize SHR for making the wrong decision on letting Grubb go. The thing that we can assess, however, is that JGR clearly made the right decision to add him. After a tough 2011, Hamlin looks excited to be back behind the wheel of a car...and in Victory Lane.
"I'm going to push for more and more and more -- things within our race car," Hamlin said after the win. "That's the attitude you've got to have to stay on top, and when I come back here, it just puts 2011 to rest. That year is done. It's a year I'd just as soon forget about, and we're focused on winning a championship."
While they haven't been together long, it's clear that a mutual hunger to prove their championship-abilities has united the duo. "The way it ended," Grubb said of 2011. "I didn't really get to enjoy the championship like I really should have. So we're going to do our best this season to go out and win another one, this time with Denny and Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing."
Based on a fast start to the season that has the No. 11 team looking down on the rest of the standings, it's obvious that this isn't just some rah-rah rhetoric. Grubb looks like he might have been just the crew chief Hamlin needed to rebound into championship contention and vindicate his dismissal after leading the No. 14 team to its current championship reign. At Joe Gibbs Racing, this team definitely looks like it's ready to roll up the sleeves and, well, get grubby!