Monday, October 31, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Grubb finally conquers Martinsville Speedway

MARTINSVILLE -- Before the lengthy TV interview, before all the hugs from family and friends, Darian Grubb sat up there on the victory podium and collected his thoughts.

His firesuit was drenched in champagne. A grandfather clock sat at his side. Fans pressed up to the fencing, many of them calling his name.

Grubb smiled.

"I love this place," he said. "Maybe I'll go up on top of the mountain tonight and see Mom and Dad or something, just to enjoy it."

He should. There are about 150 acres in Floyd County, where Grubb's parents still live, that would make a prime party spot.

And there's no doubt Tony Stewart's crew chief had as much to do with this victory as the driver.

"Darian Grubb," Stewart said, "saved us."

Grubb packed a career's worth of savvy moves into one winning day. A car that Stewart couldn't stand for 200 laps ultimately became a contender thanks to Grubb's mechanical adjustments.

Then, two late pit calls by Grubb gained a combined 15 spots in track position, setting Stewart up for his late pass of Jimmie Johnson.

But nobody around here needs a lesson in Grubb's aptitude. He graduated sixth in his class from Floyd County High School in 1993 before earning an engineering degree at Virginia Tech.

"I'm a very proud Hokie," he said. "I hope to bring a lot of Hokie fans out tonight to celebrate."

They could toast the culmination of 20 years of Grubb trying to conquer Martinsville Speedway. His first trip here came as a teen, working on the Late Model Stock car crew of fellow Floyd native Jeff Agnew.

Grubb chased his racing dream hard -- "He had his own agenda," his father, Duayne, once told me. "He knew exactly what he was going to go into" -- before rising through the Sprint Cup ranks with Johnson's team and landing his current position three years ago.

Despite his experience at this track, though, Grubb and Stewart hadn't had a ton of success at Martinsville in their five races together before Sunday.

"We haven't finished well here," Grubb said. "We've had good cars; we've been able to run up front, we just haven't been able to capitalize and finish up front. Our first race together here we finished third, and that's the best we've ever run."

This one looked like it might be another long day. Early in the race, Stewart complained constantly about how his car was handling. Stewart, who started fourth, was running 20th midway through the race as Grubb and his crew struggled to find the answers.

"That's the toughest part of this racetrack and the way the strategy goes," Grubb said. "You see a lot of turnover. You have to do the opposite strategy of what the guys do in front of you and go back and forth. You see a lot of topsy-turvy racing.

"We played the strategy pretty well today."

Twice, actually.

A long pit stop about two-thirds of the way through the 500-lap event got Stewart's car competitive. He was up to 12th with a little more than 100 laps to go.

"I think credit needs to go to his crew chief," said Carl Edwards, who struggled all day. "I raced around Tony for the first 100, 150 laps. I thought his car was as slow as mine was."

Then, on lap 398, Stewart pitted during a caution. Grubb opted to take two tires instead of four, which bumped Stewart up nine spots to third.

Almost immediately, though. Stewart had to pit again when he thought he had a tire going down.

He fell back in the field again. A caution with 35 laps to go gave Grubb another decision to make.

He opted for two tires again, moving Stewart back to third.

The rest was up to "Smoke," who deftly steered around Johnson with three laps to go.

"The guys on the team were awesome," Grubb said. "Nobody gave up. To get the hometown win here ... it's awesome, man."

Did he wind up going to the top of the mountain to celebrate? Maybe.

Or maybe, sitting there on that podium, he was already there.

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