How much does a crew chief matter? Ask Denny Hamlin and the number 11 team over at Joe Gibbs Racing. On the heels of back-to-back victories at Bristol and Atlanta, the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series leader in victories has all the makings of a championship winner with one race to go before the 10-race chase.
Crew chief Darian Grubb- who helped guide Tony Stewart to the 2011 championship- has made a difference. After a couple of slower pit stops early on in Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500, he let his crew know they would be just fine when it counted. “It's one of those things where you can pretty much just look down at the guys and give them a wink and let them know that they've got this, that they've got the potential to do it….you give them that wink and they're all fired up, they want to do everything…..they did not miss a beat, and they even did a few things I didn't ask for on top of what was there just above and beyond the call of duty to do a great job and a very fast pit stop.”
It’s that same sense of confidence and control that had Hamlin going along with Grubb’s seemingly counter-intuitive call to “whoa up” his horse to stretch out fuel mileage. “It's hard to play those games,” Grubb said, “because even Denny was getting upset that we were having to go so slow at the end of these runs and watching Harvick pull away. But we did our pit stops, and in 14 laps we were right on his bumper again. You play through those scenarios, the fuel mileage, the tire windows and the car. Denny did a great job managing that tonight, and it all came down to that last pit and the pit crew did an incredible job.” Perhaps with a different crew chief, the driver lobbies harder to take immediate action; but in this case, it’s hard to go against a proven winner.
Joe Gibbs Racing has had its frustrating moments in 2012; the ordinarily prolific Kyle Busch is on the Chase bubble, and Joey Logano needs a perfect storm to make it in. For Hamlin’s team, they have had their stumbles as well, but they’ve developed that short memory that allows them to treat each race like a stand alone event.
After his curious ouster at Stewart-Haas Racing, it’s not hard to root for Grubb as he proves his worth as a pit boss. He’s well-poised to become crew chief for two different champions in back-to-back seasons. A lot can happen in 11 weeks, but there’s an understated sense of swagger in the Hamlin camp, and Darian Grubb has a lot to do with it. He has become a NASCAR E.F. Hutton- when he talks, people listen. When they listen, his team wins.
Right now, the 11 pit crew would run through a wall for Darian Grubb, and as the beneficiary, Denny Hamlin has an upbeat countenance at just the right team of the year. To answer the question, does a crew chief matter? It sure seems he does with the number 11 FedEx team.
Other articles by Jim McCoy include:
Brian Vickers Is Making A Case For A Fulltime Cup Ride
Anticipation, Expectations Surround Bristol
Jim McCoy is a radio and television sports reporter and producer in Southern Oregon, where he makes his home with his wife and three children. Jim is also a radio play-by-play announcer for high school football, baseball and basketball. He was recently named Oregon Association of Broadcasters 2012 Sports Announcer of The Year- Non-commercial Division.