- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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JOLIET, Ill. -- Darian Grubb had an uneasy feeling, the kind that makes you feel like you're on the brink of something bad instead of special, heading into the Chase a year ago.
His driver, Tony Stewart, had stopped coming to all of the team meetings, answering phone calls and responding to text messages. It seemed to go beyond the normal crew chief-driver tension that comes with a struggling race team.
This seemed personal.
"I knew then that communication was getting bad," Grubb said as he recalled the beginning of the 2011 Chase. "Even though a lot of those things were getting blamed on me, I was sitting in the meetings every week.
"But you knew things weren't as happy as they should have been at that time. The focus wasn't there. It's hard to work on race cars and work on strategy when you're not getting feedback a lot of the time."
The uneasy feeling lessened after Stewart won the first two Chase races, but two weeks later it was justified. Stewart and Matt Borland walked into Grubb's office at Stewart-Haas Racing after a 15th-place finish at Kansas and told him he would be replaced in 2013.
The uneasy feeling got even worse two weeks later when Grubb was told there wouldn't be any position for him at SHR beyond the season.
It still hurts, even after helping Stewart to an improbable five Chase wins and a third title. To this day, Grubb doesn't understand exactly what happened, and Stewart isn't ready to explain.
"It's hard for everybody to understand, because there is more to it than face value," Stewart said without elaborating.
But Grubb landed on his feet -- big time.
He signed with Joe Gibbs Racing to replace Mike Ford as Denny Hamlin's crew chief. He enters Sunday's Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway as part of the top-seeded team after collecting a series-high four wins during the regular season.
More importantly, he enters with a good feeling, with a driver talking about winning a championship -- not one talking about wasting a spot in the Chase, as Stewart said last season after an August race at Michigan.
"After Tony said that, we took that kind of as a call to arms to go out there and prove that he was wrong," Grubb said. "We knew we were a championship team. We had to make sure he had it in his head we were as well.
"Luckily, this year we don't have to do that. Denny knows we can win a championship. It's just a matter of getting it done."
Don't be surprised if they do. Grubb and Hamlin are on similar missions as they approach the next 10 races. Grubb wants to show the world he truly is a championship crew chief and that he didn't deserve what happened to him at SHR.
Hamlin wants to show the world he truly is a championship driver and forget how his team squandered a shot at the 2010 title in the final two races.
"We both have something to prove," Hamlin said. "I feel like stat-wise, I'm as good as anybody out there, but I don't have a championship. I'm always going to be the LeBron until I get my championship."
Perhaps it is fitting in a year when LeBron James overcame his ghosts to win his first NBA title, Hamlin could get his first in NASCAR. Since he entered the Sprint Cup series full time in 2006, only Jimmie Johnson (40), Stewart (23) and Kyle Busch (23) have more wins than his 21.
He's made the Chase all seven seasons of his career -- only Johnson has a longer streak -- and finished in the top five three times.
He's ready to take the next step. Grubb is a big reason why.
"When he chose me as his driver, over all the people that were looking to hire him, that gave me the confidence that I was a championship-caliber driver," Hamlin said.
Hamlin's confidence was reeling after blowing the 2010 title and finishing ninth in 2009. He needed a change. Grubb was the perfect match.
Both grew up in a small Virginia towns, Hamlin in Chesterfield and Grubb in Floyd. Both grew up racing on short tracks and knew a lot of the same people. Both approach the sport from a more technical aspect.
Both are big into family, Grubb with two young children and Hamlin expecting his first with his girlfriend, Jordan Fish.
"I knew when they signed him up with Denny that that was going to be a good pairing," Stewart said. "I know Darian and Denny enough to know they were going to have good chemistry together."
As complimentary as Stewart was to Grubb after winning the championship, they never developed that solid chemistry. Stewart began questioning the team early last season when a mistake on pit road cost him a win at Las Vegas.
He wasn't very happy with his crew when he ran out of gas on the final lap at Texas with a car he felt was capable of winning.
But Stewart insists he didn't give up on Grubb too early.
"I don't think we gave up on him as much as we needed a change," said Stewart, who enters the Chase tied for second with three wins.
Stewart's change was Hamlin's gain. Not that everything has been perfect between Hamlin and Grubb. A miscommunication at New Hampshire on whether to take two or four tires left Hamlin with a second-place finish instead of what would have meant a fifth win before the Chase began.
But the two talked that out and have become even stronger. They say they believe in each other now more than ever.
Grubb needed that. While he took the high road following the announcement that he wouldn't return to SHR, there were moments when it was apparent how much that hurt.
The first came after Stewart won the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. While his crew rushed onto the track to celebrate, Grubb stayed at the pit box in tears, hugging his wife and young son. Then there was the season-ending banquet in Las Vegas where an emotional Grubb received a standing ovation at the Myers Brothers luncheon.
"The banquet was tougher for me," Grubb said. "It had sunk in at that point [that I wouldn't be back]. You're celebrating the victory and everybody is asking you, 'Why did you get fired?' And you don't have an answer for it.
"That's tough. I didn't really enjoy Vegas that much."
Tony Gibson, the crew chief for SHR's second car driven by Ryan Newman, could tell. But like most of us, he saw the courage in Grubb that enabled him to complete the championship run.
"You could tell it hurt him, like, 'What did I do wrong?' " Gibson said. "I don't think anybody did anything wrong. It was just a chemistry thing at that point.
"But damn, for somebody to go through what he did and pull it together and win a championship, is pretty freaking awesome. There's not a lot of people who could have held it together like he did and go on."
Hamlin never has asked Grubb what happened. He doesn't really care.
"I just realized it probably was an uncomfortable situation for him," he said. "My question to him was, 'Is the motivation still there to win another championship?'
"He assured me he wanted to win one with me as bad as anything to show the outside world what he's capable of."
Not that Grubb really has anything to prove. The classy way he handled last season is worth more than any championship.
"Last [week at Richmond] when I was driving out on a golf cart, a lady stopped me and said she was really impressed with the way I handled things," Grubb said. "That's just my nature.
"I'm all for these guys now. This team deserves to win a championship. I'm just a part that came in here to help them out. It's not anything that I did. It's not anything I'm trying to rub in anybody's face."
But it has to feel awfully good compared to the uneasy feeling he had this time a year ago.