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|Tony Stewart encouraged Denny Hamlin to pursue Darian Grubb, right, as crew chief for the No. 11.|
CONCORD, N.C. -- Here you have a driver who feels he got his "ass kicked" last season, and a crew chief who says "It's weird to me to this day" that he got booted after leading the most remarkable onslaught to a championship in NASCAR history.
Together, Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb just might be the most promising pairing in Cup racing this season.
Add a resurgence in spirit at Joe Gibbs Racing, and "There's no doubt we'll have a successful year," Hamlin said Monday during the NASCAR preseason media tour.
From what Grubb has seen since he arrived at JGR on the rebound, "With the technology they have, I'm sitting there thinking, 'How did we beat these guys?'" he said.
Good point. Grubb walloped 'em through the Chase, atop the pit box for Tony Stewart, who won five of the 10 playoff races last season.
But it was already in the plan at Stewart-Haas Racing that Grubb would not return in 2012. Stewart stuck by the plan.
|Denny Hamlin fell to ninth in the 2011 Sprint Cup standings after finishing second in 2010.|
At JGR, "I think you need a season of getting your ass kicked," Hamlin said, "for people to wake up and realize that you know what? We're not as good as we maybe thought we were.
"At JGR we got our tails kicked. Kyle [Busch] won four races in a period [of the regular season, and Hamlin won one], but when the Chase started, we were off from the start. We were all terrible."
Stewart's No. 14 operation was just the opposite, sputtering through the regular season and deciding to replace Grubb as crew chief in '12 before the juggernaut broke loose in the Chase.
"It's still weird to me to this day to not know exactly what was going on and why the decision was made," Grubb said. "It wasn't any kind of mutual decision or anything like that. I was told I wasn't going to be back for the 2012 season, so at that point I just started going out there doing the best we could to try to move forward and win the championship."
Stewart said he still doesn't question himself for bringing in Steve Addington to replace the crew chief who batted .500 in the fall.
"We made that decision before the Chase even started and I think it took a lot of the pressure off," Stewart said Monday. "I think that was part of what led to the success at the end of the season."
In fact, Hamlin said, it was Stewart himself, a former teammate of Hamlin's at JGR, who encouraged this new pairing.
Neither Stewart nor Hamlin is the type to jet away on tropical vacations, and so in the immediate aftermath of Stewart's fourth title, "I saw him quite a few times out and around Charlotte," Hamlin said.
"I told him I was interested in working with Darian -- what did he think?
"He said, 'I was going to get in contract with you because I feel like the guy is perfect for you.'
It's still weird to me to this day to not know exactly what was going on and why the decision was made. It wasn't any kind of mutual decision or anything like that. I was told I wasn't going to be back for the 2012 season, so at that point I just started going out there doing the best we could to try to move forward and win the championship.” -- Darian Grubb on his release from Stewart-Haas Racing
"He said, 'Y'all have the same personality, and if there's anything I can do to make it happen' -- he would.
"Tony knows me pretty well and obviously Tony and Darian had a lot of success. So for Tony to say, 'I think this is something that's gonna be really good,' that's great motivation for me."
With Grubb as a free agent after he and Stewart staged a multiple-comeback victory in the season finale at Homestead-Miami, "There's no doubt we had a full-court press on him [recruiting]," Hamlin said. "With his loyalty to Mr. [Rick] Hendrick [owner of Hendrick Motorsports] and everything they'd built over there over Darian's entire career, we were kind of worried we were going to lose him to Mr. Hendrick."
Grubb had been an engineer at HMS and, pressed into crew chief duty while Chad Knaus was serving a suspension for rules infractions, directed Jimmie Johnson's Daytona 500 victory in 2006.
Hendrick wanted him back on the engineering staff there.
"But he said he wanted to be a crew chief, he wanted to win more championships, and that he felt like I was the guy who could do it for him," Hamlin said.
"I'm glad to see that he landed in the position that he wanted at Gibbs, and it's going to be hard to race against him for sure," Stewart said, "because we started this whole thing [SHR] together three years ago."
But now, "I think they'll be a good pair," Stewart said. "Denny's a very technical guy. I'm the opposite of that. I just get in the thing and drive it. Denny will analyze everything that's going on with the car, and Darian's very good at that, so I think they'll be a better pair than I was with Darian.
"I think we were good together, but I think there's a lot of potential in Darian and Denny for sure.
"I think they'll hit it off right away, and I think they'll run really well together."
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.