Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Grubb's new gig just the right fit

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has called him a "great voice of reason."

Jimmie Johnson has labeled him a "very, very smart guy." Last year, car owner Rick Hendrick dubbed him "a star in our organization."

And four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon? He chose a simple adjective to describe him: "Awesome."

So Darian Grubb has pretty good credentials and friends throughout NASCAR. The only question is, does he have faults? Really, has the Floyd County High School and Virginia Tech graduate ever lost his cool, ever lashed out, ever had incidents he regrets?

"I'm sure there have been," Grubb said with a chuckle in a phone interview last week, adding that he and Casey Mears had their moments when he was Mears' crew chief in 2007.

"I'm sure that's a matter of opinion for people who are on the other end of the sword."

If there's someone at the other end of Grubb's sword today -- an unlikely premise, given the 33-year-old's cool, levelheaded, methodical approach to leadership -- it will be Tony Stewart, one of the most colorful personalities in auto racing. Grubb is the new crew chief for the Sprint Cup star, and today they officially begin their first season together when the green flag drops for the Daytona 500.

Nobody really knows how Stewart's start-up organization, Stewart-Haas Racing, is going to fare in its rookie season, but the early signs have been positive. With Grubb in his ear, Stewart led some laps and finished third in the Budweiser Shootout last weekend.

Then, Stewart took second in the first of two Gatorade Duel races on Thursday, earning a fifth-place starting position before Saturday's practice wreck sent him to the rear of the field.

Still, this is new for Grubb. All of it. The anxiety, the unknowns, the expanded responsibilities. He spent the past six seasons as part of NASCAR's most dominant team -- serving as an engineer, part-time crew chief and jack-of-all-trades for Hendrick Motorsports -- and now he's a key member of a two-car organization trying to get its footing in a highly competitive sport.

"It's definitely different," Grubb said. "We're going over everything from how the building operates to how the people function, what our work hours are, when we're going to lunch, benefits and insurance packages, all those other things that people don't think about when you've got a large corporation of 140 people working there together. You've got a lot more loose ends to tie up."

But today, they're at the track. That's always been a comfortable place for Grubb, whether it was turning wrenches as a teen at what is now Motor Mile Speedway in Pulaski County or calling the shots in the biggest stock-car race in the world.

He's done the latter before, if you'll recall. Grubb was the guy who filled in for the suspended Chad Knaus in 2006 and, as interim crew chief, helped guide Johnson to his first Daytona 500 victory. That was a surprise to everyone -- Grubb didn't even know he was second in line until the penalty was announced -- and helped hasten Grubb's rapid rise in NASCAR.

"It was amazing," Grubb recalled. "To win that race was a pretty mind-numbing experience, being in Victory Lane just kind of standing around looking at everything we'd all accomplished. We had the goal to win that race regardless, and then everything happened with Chad with NASCAR, and we were still able to pull off the goals that we had when we came down here."

The goals this year are pretty simple. Win races. Lead laps. Be among the top-15 competitors each week. End the year with a foundation for a bright future.

So far, the chemistry between Grubb and Stewart has been excellent.

"It's good," Grubb said. "It's really good. We've had a lot of fun just joking and carrying on, getting to know each other. Getting out here on the racetrack has been a big help for us, just to get away from the hustle and bustle of making all the decisions in the shop and getting back in a setting where we're both real comfortable."

They're comfortable until the sword drops.

But with Grubb, that'll probably take a long, long time.

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