It is hard to argue with Darian Grubb's track record as a crew chief.
He was atop the pit box when Jimmie Johnson won the 2006 Daytona 500. He called the shots for Tony Stewart's amazing run in the 2011 Chase in which he won five of the ten races. And as Denny Hamlin's crew chief in 2012, his driver has won more races than any other driver in the Sprint Cup Series and currently sits in third place in the standings, just seven points out of first.
But you get the feeling that something isn't quite right between Grubb and Hamlin. At least, I do.
Several times this season, Grubb's strategy has backfired. Then there was the air pressure fiasco during qualifying at Loudon last week. And Hamlin followed that by saying all the right things in the pre-race interview about him sticking with his team and trusting Grubb.
Of course, Hamlin went on to win the race. But the truth is, he's still thinking about those strategy calls that backfired.
"He does a lot of things well," Hamlin said about Grubb on Tuesday, September 25 in a NASCAR Cam teleconference. "Even though strategy has bitten us a few times this year, I think he's really good at calling a race. I think he's amazing with figuring out how to get track position when you're not running well, and then setting you up for a better finish than what you had scheduled for.
"Richmond obviously was disappointing. New Hampshire was disappointing. Those are strategies that kind of took us out of wins, but I just think I have a lot of faith in him and I never really second guess what he has to say, and if I do, then I feel very adamantly about what I think and with the situation."
He went on to praise the morale of his team, crediting Grubb, but overall, his answer sounds conflicted -- almost as if he trusts Grubb's setups, but not his ability to call a race.
Keeping in line with that theme, Hamlin thought he should have pitted at Loudon when the caution flag came out on Lap 131. But Grubb told him to stay out. Hamlin was the leader at that point and several cars behind him pitted, putting him in a precarious situation.
"Yeah, things worked out obviously," Hamlin said in the post race interview. "Those are the things that can keep you out of victory lane is untimely cautions, things like that. Darian, you know, he sees lap times and so I don't see what our car is doing as far as the drop-off, things like that. But I think we had only run 20 laps and I actually thought that maybe we should take two tires.
"But you know, he assured me that we were going to run just fine as soon as we went back green and I think that's some of the fastest laps we ran all day was on scuffed tires. We had a similar run like that at the end of the race. We both had 20-lap green-flag runs leading into the final caution.
"So it was a no-brainer from him. He even told me, you can come in if you want, but we are not going to do anything, we are just going to sit here behind the wall."
A caution flag on Lap 178 saved the day for Hamlin because he was getting close to being forced to pit, which prompts the question -- why would Grubb take such a risk when Hamlin had the dominant car all day? He explained his reasoning in the post race presser.
"If we pitted then, we knew there were going to be some cars that stayed out because they were not in the fuel window," Grubb said. "With as many cars as we had one lap down that could do that the wave around, that was probably going to get about 12 people their lap back."
But when you have the dominant car, why concern yourself with the fuel windows of competitors and cars that need a wave around? Even if several crew chiefs were thinking about trying to win on fuel mileage, it was the middle of the race. The next time the field pitted, Hamlin would have come charging past his competition -- just like he did at the beginning of the race when he started 32nd and ended up taking the lead on Lap 94.
We don't know for sure why Stewart-Haas Racing fired Grubb last season. Clearly Stewart respected Grubb as a person, but he didn't like something about the way he did his job. You have to wonder if Hamlin is feeling the same way right now, even as well as they are running.
All quotes come from NASCARMedia.com.
Lee Warren has interviewed and written a number of features about NASCAR drivers over the years, including Trevor Bayne, Bobby Labonte, Sam Hornish Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Morgan Shepherd, David Reutimann, Brad Coleman and others. His NASCAR devotional book, "Racin' Flat Out for Christ" from Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, is due out in the fall of 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @leewarren.
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