MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Add the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup championship crew chief to the crew of the driver that nearly won the 2010 title and it could be the winning combination in 2012.
That is what Joe Gibbs Racing, who named Darian Grubb as the crew chief for Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota on Dec. 9, is counting on. Grubb guided Tony Stewart to an impressive championship run that culminated with five victories in 10 playoff races, but it had been decided prior to the Chase that he would not return with Stewart in 2012. Stewart, it seems, had his eyes on Steve Addington. Smoke hired the former Busch brothers crew chief on Nov. 28, eight days after he won his third Sprint Cup title.
That left Grubb in the bittersweet situation of celebrating a title but being out of work.
Grubb became NASCAR's most coveted crew chief free agent, and it didn't take him long to find a new team. At JGR he will team up with Hamlin, a fellow Virginian who almost won the 2010 Sprint Cup before faltering in the final two races.
That disappointment carried over to the start of the 2011 season as Hamlin's team never regained its runner-up form. Although Hamlin made the Chase, he and crew chief Mike Ford produced just one win in 2011. They finished ninth in the standings, a whopping 119 points behind the champion.
With Grubb joining the operation, it's essential that Hamlin get off to a fast start next season.
"It's definitely important for me to get off to a good start with Denny," Grubb said. "I've already had a couple lunches with him and we talk on the phone. We want to make sure we have a united front on the team. They had a good season in 2010 and just came up short, but they need a little more to be championship contenders again after hitting a slump in 2011. We're going to go in and hit reset. We're going to start over and make sure all the guys are pulling in one direction to win the championship.
"Denny is a great guy and has that drive to go out and win the championship. Now, he wants to get it done and prove he is a champion. I'm looking forward to going out there and helping him do that."
Grubb believes Hamlin has the ability to control his car and manage the tempo of the race. Hamlin understands when to be patient and when to be aggressive and rarely gets in trouble coming onto or leaving pit road.
In three seasons together at Stewart-Haas Racing, Grubb and Stewart won 11 races. Grubb also served as the interim crew chief for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 car for the first four races of the 2006 season, winning two of those, including the Daytona 500.
Grubb chooses to look forward, not back.
"I don't feel like I have anything to prove other than the fact I want to work with championship contenders and continue winning championships," Grubb said. "I don't want to do anything for spite, because those are all the wrong reasons.
"Looking at the structure behind the organization they have at Joe Gibbs Racing, they are definitely championship contenders and will be for a long time coming. If I want to be a crew chief, then I want to be a championship contender. I want to win a championship with Denny and these guys."
Grubb admitted that making the tough calls on the pit box during the race often carried over for the rest of the week. On race day, Grubb was the boss, but the man behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet was also the team owner.
"That was always a tough aspect of working with Tony -- there were things that didn't get separated between being a driver versus being an owner," Grubb admitted. "That is something I don't have to worry about here. They will give me all the support I need to move forward and I'm looking forward to that."
Grubbs' new team owner Joe Gibbs knows all about juggling rosters. As a Hall of Fame head coach with the NFL's Washington Redskins, Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks -- Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien.
While Gibbs is the owner of the famed NASCAR team, it's his son, J.D., that serves as president and makes the day-to-day decisions. J.D. Gibbs believes it is important to shake up the lineup from time-to-time to get a fresh start.
"I come from an NFL background and our guys did a good job and we feel Darian will be a great fit to kind of lead us into the future," J.D. Gibbs said. "Watching what he's done in some tough environments, he's going to be a huge asset for JGR. ... We take great pride in the fact we won with Bobby Labonte, we won with Tony Stewart and now we are looking forward to having Denny, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano having great opportunities. Darian joining us not only strengthens the No. 11 car but strengthens the whole team as well."
Grubbs will work with competition director Jimmy Makar, as well as Busch's crew chief Dave Rogers. Greg Zipadelli is currently Logano's crew chief, but his future has not been cemented.
While the Ford/Hamlin combination produced some great results in the past, it didn't click in 2011. That is why the decision was made to make the change.
"When you come that close [to a title], it's hard," Gibbs said. "What was the right thing to do? Mike Ford did a great job for us for years. We were at a point where we needed to go a different direction. When the Darian piece came out, we thought he would be a great fit. When we got together our guys were really encouraged and thought real highly of Darian.
"A lot of people change but sometimes you get the feeling it's for change's sake. We err on the side of change slower than most. But Denny had a voice in this and when you saw the relationship between he and Darian -- Denny is really excited about it. He is behind the change and one of the guys that worked with us through the process of what is the best decision to make. We are looking forward to a great future."
Though enthusiastic about his upcoming move, Grubb admits it will be strange leaving the Hendrick Motorsports umbrella. Although Stewart-Haas Racing is a stand-alone Cup team, all of its race cars and engines are provided by Hendrick Motorsports.
"It was a tough decision for me," Grubb said. "I've been involved with the Hendrick organization for nine years and have a lot of really great friends there. ... It [joining JGR] is like working with your cousins now instead of your brothers and sisters. I'm excited about the opportunity and don't see any downfalls in doing that."
Grubb left all the technical information behind at Stewart-Haas Motorsports, but he brings tremendous championship winning experience to Hamlin's operation. At JGR he doesn't plan on making a lot of changes.
"I don't plan on turning anything upside down," he said.
The 36-year-old Grubb has much left to accomplish in his career but doesn't want to be a crew chief after his 40th birthday. That's a topic that has been discussed with his wife for family reasons. He wants to be able to spend time with his family for things such as T-ball and soccer games.
Until then, Grubb has the intensity and passion to drive Hamlin to the championship.
"Right now, I still have that competitive fire and I feel like if I'm not in the position on top of the [pit] box and being able to make those seat-of-the-pants calls, I'll be really missing out on something," Grubb said. "I want to go out there and be able to prove that a championship-winning team is all about the team and not about one person or one individual, but how you put all those individuals together pulling toward one common goal."