A Virginia-born driver with a need to prove himself after losing the championship on NASCAR's premier division two seasons ago. A Virginia-born crew chief with a need to prove himself after getting fired despite winning the title this past year. In some ways, Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb seemed made for one another.
That partnership was formalized Friday, when Joe Gibbs Racing announced that Grubb would lead Hamlin's No. 11 team beginning next season. Grubb replaces Mike Ford, who won 16 races and made the Chase six times in as many years with Hamlin, but never seemed to recover after letting the Sprint Cup title get away in the final two weeks of the 2010 campaign. Grubb joins JGR on the heels of a championship run with Tony Stewart, one that was clinched in a tiebreaker in the last race, and despite the fact that the crew chief knew he would be out of a job at season's end.
"Looking at the structure they have behind the organization there at Joe Gibbs Racing, they're definitely championship contenders, and will be for a long time coming," Grubb said Friday on a conference call with reporters. "If I'm going to be a crew chief, I want to be a championship contender, and they definitely have that background."
JGR has won three titles on NASCAR's premier division, one with Bobby Labonte and two with Stewart before he left to form his own team. Grubb had other offers, including one for an engineering position at Hendrick Motorsports, his former home, but wanted to stay on top of the pit box and build on his success of this past year.
"My wife and I had already made the decision several years ago, before I decided to take the job with Tony, that I wanted to crew chief until I was around 40 years old, because that's about the time my son will be playing T-ball and soccer games, and I'll be able to look at actually being able to slow down a little bit," said Grubb, 36. "Right now, I still have that competitive fire in me, and I feel like if I'm not in that position on top of the box being able to make those calls and the seat-of-the-pants type decisions, that I'm really going to be missing out on something. So I want to continue that, and I want to be able to go out there and be able to prove that a championship-winning team is all about the team, it's not one person or one individual that can go do that. It's how you put all those individuals together pulling for one common goal."
Grubb and Stewart won 11 races together, including five in the Chase to edge Carl Edwards for the title. But at Charlotte, midway through the playoff and with the No. 14 team seeming to struggle, Stewart notified the crew chief he would not be back the next season. Stewart has since hired Steve Addington, a former Gibbs employee and most recently crew chief for Kurt Busch at Penske Racing, to the same position. That turn of events, so painful it reduced Grubb to tears as he delivered his championship speech last week in Las Vegas, leaves the outgoing crew chief ready to prove he can do the job.
"I think there's a little bit of that," Grubb said. "I definitely want to go out there and continue being a crew chief. I didn't choose to not be a crew chief with the situation I was in before. I really don't feel like I have anything to prove, other than the fact that I want to work with championship contenders and continue going forward and winning championships. That's what it's all about, and that's what we're all in the sport for. I'm not going to do anything for spite, because those are all the wrong reasons. I want to do it because I want to win a championship with Denny and these guys."
Grubb is from Floyd, Va., while Hamlin is from greater Richmond. When they first met for lunch as prospective co-workers, they talked a lot about Virginia Tech football. Both men seem driven to succeed by difficult episodes in their professional pasts.
"He's definitely got that drive that he needs to go out there and win a championship," Grubb said of Hamlin. "He feels like that's what he needs to do to prove himself as a driver. He's won races and won a lot of things and came close [to a title], and now he wants to go out there and get it done, and to prove he is that championship-caliber guy. I'm looking forward to working with him on that."
Speaking to the media after his speech at the Sprint Cup awards ceremony last week in Las Vegas, Hamlin mentioned all the personnel moves taking place within NASCAR's premier division, and how those changes would play a role in determining who wins the championship next year. Team president and co-owner J.D. Gibbs said Hamlin supported the change of crew chief.
"We probably err on the side of changing slower than most," Gibbs said, "but I do feel like Denny had a voice in this. And for him, when you saw the relationship there between him and Darian, he's real excited about it. Without going into a whole lot of detail, he's totally supportive and behind the change. He was one of the guys that kind of worked with us through the process as to what was the best decision to make."
Gibbs added that the organization was considering a crew chief change on the No. 11 car before Grubb became available, and that releasing Ford and hiring Grubb were separate decisions.
"Mike has done a really good job for us for years. We were at a point where felt like we just had to go in a different direction," Gibbs said. "As we started having those conversations, the Darian piece came out and became public, and our guys started thinking about it and said, that would be a great fit, let's have some conversations and see if he's interested. So when we kind of got together, you could tell our guys were really encouraged and thought real highly of Darian. So it was kind of a process there. They weren't really necessarily tied to each other."
Grubb officially starts on Monday, and said he hopes to do some kind of testing before cars get on track at Daytona for Preseason Thunder in January. For a team with championship aspirations, getting off to a quick start is a priority.
"It's definitely important for me to get off to a good start with Denny," Grubb said. "I've already had a couple of lunches with him, and talked a little bit on the phone, and we're trying to get together and make sure we've got a united team front on what we want to try to achieve. But Denny, they had definitely a really good season in 2010, just came up short, and they feel like they just need a little more to be championship contenders again. They got into a slump with everything in 2011. We're just going to kind of go in and hit reset. We're going to start over, and try to get all the guys, make sure they're pulling in one direction and try to win the championship."