Commentary

Hamlin and Grubb: Winning combination

Updated: March 4, 2012, 9:43 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Darian Grubb, the defending champion among crew chiefs, took his new driver, Denny Hamlin, to Victory Lane on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Tony Stewart, the man Grubb took to the Sprint Cup title last season, had a problem restarting his car late in the race and ended up 22nd.

Probably just a coincidence, but no matter how you look at it, Grubb is the guru of the garage now. Grubb is back on top of the standings. It took only two races to get there again.

And the happiest man in NASCAR is Hamlin. His team hired a ringer on the pit box. When Hamlin took the checkered flag, he had a message for Grubb:

[+] EnlargeDarian Grubb
Tyler Barrick/Getty Images/NASCARCrew chief Darian Grubb, who won five Chase races with Tony Stewart in 2011, helped put Denny Hamlin in Victory Lane at Phoenix.

"Thank you for making me competitive again," Hamlin said.

Hamlin looks more than competitive again in the No. 11 Toyota. He looks like a championship contender, the place he occupied at the end of the 2010 season and the spot almost everyone expected him to fill in 2011.

It didn't turn out that way. After winning eight times in 2010 and falling one race short of the title, he won only once in 2011 and struggled in the Chase.

It was the end of the line for crew chief Mike Ford and a rare opportunity for Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing. The 2011 championship crew chief was a free agent, a decision to make a change that Stewart made before he and Grubb had a remarkable five-win Chase to win Stewart's third Cup title.

"I guess this is a little bit of vindication," Grubb said. "But I really don't look at it that way. I'd rather take the high road. Mike built a hell of team here and I've been able to take advantage of that."

A crew chief is a team's head coach. No one in NASCAR knows that job better than Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls as coach of the Washington Redskins.

"It amazes me how similar that job [a Cup crew chief] is to football coaching," Gibbs said. "And I like coaches. I think coaches deserve a lot. Well, not money," he said with a laugh, "but Darian has come in and done a great job getting those guys together in a short period of time."

The victory Sunday comes after a fourth-place finish by Hamlin in the Daytona 500. Hamlin has a six-point lead on Greg Biffle and is eight points ahead of Kevin Harvick in the Cup standings.

Those points might look a little different if Harvick had a few more drops of fuel in his car at the end. He was closing on Hamlin with less than two laps to go when he ran out of gas, still managing to coast home in second place.

The unanswered question is whether he could have passed Hamlin if his engine hadn't sputtered.

"I don't think so," Harvick said. "We seemed to be pretty evenly matched in the second half of the race. And I don't know that there would have been enough time [to pass Hamlin]."

Being out front at the end Sunday was something Hamlin never expected.

"I don't know where that came from today or how our car was that good," Hamlin said. "We were solidly off in practice, but it kept getting better. I had no idea it would fire off like it did today."

Speaking of firing off, Stewart's engine didn't fire off when he needed it to Sunday, the first victim of the new electronic fuel injection system that still has some gray areas for the teams.

This is still a learning process for me and Darian. I think it will take about two months for us to really hit our stride. But if we are this good now, just think how good we will be later.

-- Denny Hamlin

"I just shut the car off [under a caution to save fuel] like I did at Daytona, but it never re-fired," Stewart said afterward in a TV interview. "I don't know why. I don't build these things. It's not my department. You're asking the wrong guy."

Stewart may have tripped a circuit breaker that affected the EFI system.

"That won't be the last guy to have an issue," said Biffle, who finished third. "We're all going to have growing pains with this [EFI] system. We don't know how much heat these things can handle."

It burned Stewart on Sunday and cost him a possible top-10 finish. Grubb was asked what he thought about the situation of Stewart's EFI woes.

"I'd say thanks for the tidbit," Grubb said. "We've done a good job with that so far and hope it doesn't come back to bite us, as well."

Grubb is doing all the biting right now. He's Hamlin's personal barracuda, devouring whatever gets in their way.

"No doubt about it," Hamlin said. "Darian came here with a lot of knowledge. This was the first chance for him to work in a race where you have to make adjustments. He made the right ones today."

And Hamlin is convinced the best is yet to come.

"This is still a learning process for me and Darian," Hamlin said. "I think it will take about two months for us to really hit our stride. But if we are this good now, just think how good we will be later."

Anything is possible when you hire the guru in the garage.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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