Joe Gibbs Racing optimistic after a rare offseason of turnover
Sometimes 3-year-old Gavin Grubb falls back on old habits. He tries to change, but he's discovering that isn't always easy.
For his entire life, Gavin's father, Darian, had been Tony Stewart's crew chief. That changed when, after helping Stewart win last year's Cup title, Darian Grubb was let go. He's now Denny Hamlin's crew chief. The new job, though, has challenged the younger Grubb. He's had to learn a different driver, a new car number and another paint scheme. With the help of some Hamlin race cars from his father, Gavin is adjusting.
"Now he runs around the house, jumping up and down, screaming, 'Denny Hamlin! Denny Hamlin!' '' Darian Grubb said. "He still throws out a Tony Stewart every once in a while.''
Joe Gibbs, 71, can relate to Gavin's excitement. The owner of Joe Gibbs Racing built his team on continuity. Many of the team's employees and executives have been there a decade or more. Yet, Gibbs feels the different vibe at his team's race shop after an uncharacteristic offseason of changes.
Grubb joins Hamlin as crew chief, replacing Mike Ford. Jason Ratcliff will serve as Joey Logano's crew chief after Greg Zipadelli left to join Stewart's team. Hamlin, Logano and Kyle Busch all have new spotters. JGR will rely on Toyota Racing Development for its engines after suffering engine issues last season while building them in house.
"This is the most amount of changes we've ever made in one offseason,'' said Dave Rogers, who has been with JGR 14 years, including the past two seasons as Busch's crew chief.
The organization needed a shakeup after a disappointing season where its cars slowed down as the season progressed. Busch won four of the first 23 races but saw his dismal Chase record continue. Hamlin won once and wasn't a factor often. Logano, saddled by engine issues, lost confidence and saw his performance suffer.
The five team wins last year were the organization's fewest since 2007.
Not all the offseason moves were expected. Gibbs admitted that Zipadelli's departure was something "we didn't think was going to happen.'' It created an opportunity for others and for the team to make adjustments.
"We've restructured ... who reports to who,'' Rogers said. "We've done a lot. Bringing Jason [Ratcliff] in and bringing Darian [Grubb] in gave us a clean slate. We know we have a lot of little problems here and there, let's clean them all up. Let's just deal with everything right now and make this the most well-organized company we can.''
Will it be enough? It could be, along with the lessons learned last year.
"I went through such a tough year last year, it's mentally made me so much tougher that I know this year when I get [in] the race car, I've got more confidence,'' Hamlin said. "More confidence equals speed. No doubt about it.
"It wasn't because I had no confidence that we ran like crap. It was way more than that. This year, there's just so much more optimism in our team. We've made enough changes that it's going to make a difference.''
A key change, Hamlin said, is that he believes Grubb is strong on some of his weaker tracks. Hamlin typically is a slow starter. Grubb helped Stewart, also a slow starter, nearly win four of the first seven races last season. Points gained in February and March can play a role in who makes the Chase.
Also, Grubb's arrival presents a new way of looking at issues. His championship -- something Gibbs has not won in the past six season -- gives him a platform to encourage other changes at JGR if they're needed.
Not everything needs to be altered, Grubb notes.
He admits that after arriving he was surprised at what he saw in the race shop.
"The engineering support they have is way beyond what I'm used to in some areas,'' he said. "I'm sitting there thinking, 'Man, how did we beat those cars with the technology they have.'"
Hamlin also has done his share to prepare for this season. He's dropped three percent body fat, continuing a decline from 27.5 in 2006 to 10 percent. He credited his time in Scottsdale, Ariz., during the offseason with helping him with that.
"That's the good thing about getting away, you spend more time focused on your goals,'' he said.
With last year's frustrations behind him, Hamlin is focused on what's ahead. His family also can't wait for the new season.
Hamlin's father, Dennis, introduced himself to Grubb at Monday's event. Grubb told him to come by anytime.
"I'm going to be your right arm,'' Dennis Hamlin said to Grubb.
"You're going to have to tell me all the little buttons to push and when,'' Grubb replied.
Logano provides a similar mystery. He finished the 2010 season with five top-10 finishes in the last six races. The momentum, though, did not carry over to last season as a series of engines issues hurt him and he never recovered.
"Joey is a confidence driver,'' Rogers said. "He lost confidence in his performance. I don't think his performance dwindled because of ability. I think his performance dwindled because of confidence.
"If we do the right things, provide him with the right things and we provide him with good race cars at the beginning of this season, and he knows that Jason has his back through thick and thin ... I think his confidence will build up and you'll see some good numbers from the No. 20 car.''
Logano admits this is a key year, knowing his future at JGR could be at stake.
Just as critical is the year for Busch, who was involved in high-profile incidents on and off the track last year. NASCAR parked Busch for a Nationwide and Cup race at Texas last November after he retaliated against Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution.
Gibbs sat down with Busch last season to discuss his career. While Gibbs says it was Busch's decision, Busch notes that Gibbs "strongly recommended'' he not compete in the Truck Series this year. Busch won't. He'll curtail his Nationwide driving to less than half a season.
The point, Gibbs said, was to help Busch focus on the Cup program and be able to spend enough time with his crew chief and team when needed instead of running to another car all the time.
All these moves could make this a memorable year for Gavin Grubb. As Darian Grubb's son learns life's lessons, he'll soon find out, change isn't always bad.
Come July, Gavin will be a big brother.