LAS VEGAS (AP) — The champion and his race team sit together at the head table during NASCAR’s season-ending awards ceremony.
For Tony Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb, separated by just three seats Friday night on the stage in the Wynn Las Vegas Resort, it marked the final time they were together as a team. Despite winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Grubb has been fired from Stewart-Haas Racing and the replacement has already been hired.
It’s made for some awkward moments during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas, and Grubb’s wife, Yolanda, even quipped “we’re like the big elephant in the room everywhere we go.”
That’s not how it felt, though, during Grubb’s acceptance speech Thursday as the champion crew chief. As he struggled to keep his own composure, his words brought NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series director John Darby to tears and driver Carl Edwards hopped to his feet to start a rousing standing ovation for the fired champion crew chief.
“It’s definitely awkward,” Grubb said. “That’s the only problem with the situation. It’s awkward. We’re just trying to put that in the back of our head and go out and enjoy what we’ve accomplished. I think we’re doing a good job of that. But it’s tough.
“To win a championship, it’s one of the most special moments of my life. But also knowing that it’s coming to an end … that’s a tough thing for me. I’ve already got my office cleaned out and we’re getting ready to move on.”
The Grubb firing will leave a blemish on Stewart’s impressive third Cup championship.
Late in the summer, when Stewart was slumping, he said his No. 14 team didn’t even deserve a spot in the 12-driver field. Although the team eventually earned a berth, Stewart said he wasn’t a legitimate title contender.
Then he won the Chase opener at Chicago, and again the next week at New Hampshire.
Suddenly he was a very viable threat to bring a championship to SHR, the one-time fledgling race team Stewart became part owner of in 2009.
But he finished 25th the next week at Dover, and was 15th at Kansas to fall from first in points to seventh with six races remaining in the Chase. As the team headed into Charlotte, Stewart told Grubb he was letting him go at the end of the season.
“There were a group of us that sat down and had to make a decision and the decision was that we needed to go in a different direction,” Stewart said. “That decision was made before the Chase started. We said we wanted to finish this thing out strong together; we were going to do it to the end of the year.
“I’m very, very proud of the fact that through that, (Grubb) was able to do a great job and we were able to come out with a championship. It’s a pretty strong statement.”
Indeed it was.
Grubb led Stewart to a pair of top-10 finishes at Charlotte and Talladega. Then they won at Martinsville. And Texas. And almost won at Phoenix.
Grubb sent Stewart into the season-ending race trailing Edwards by three points in the standings and knowing a victory would ensure them the title. Using one of the most commanding drives of his career, Stewart powered his way to the championship and relied on Grubb to repair damage to the front of their Chevrolet and use a gutsy fuel strategy to make Stewart the first owner/driver to win the title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
But there was some sadness to this celebration because of Grubb’s parting, and the difficulty fans have in understanding how Stewart could let him go after winning a championship. Steve Addington, who quit as Kurt Busch’s crew chief, has already been hired to replace Grubb.
Stewart did his best to explain why he didn’t undo the Grubb firing after winning the title.
“(The) wins and the championship doesn’t change some of the variables we were looking at changing,” Stewart said. “Trust me, there (are) no major flaws with Darian, but there were variables that we felt like we needed to change and we stuck with that.”
Grubb helped Stewart build SHR when they took over in 2009, and Stewart has made the Chase in all three seasons. He was the top seed in 2009, but finished a distant sixth. He was then seventh last season.
This year, he went into the Chase winless, and even after opening with the two victories, he felt as if too many things were off.
“There were just a lot of missed opportunities and there were just variables that we felt like needed to be changed,” Stewart said. “When we decided to make the change, we stuck with what our decision was.”
That included not considering Grubb for two vacancies Stewart still has: He’s searching for a competition director for SHR, and a crew chief for Danica Patrick’s 10-race Cup schedule.
But Grubb won’t be out of work for long. His phone has been ringing nonstop, he said, making it seem like he can have his pick of crew chief positions.
His name keeps coming up for a potential pairing with Denny Hamlin, who narrowly missed winning the 2010 championship and struggled most of this year. Hamlin has been paired with crew chief Mike Ford for his entire Cup career, and Ford is currently still working in that capacity.
Grubb also has an offer from former boss Rick Hendrick to return to Hendrick Motorsports in an engineering role. The team does not presently have room for a crew chief.
“There’s definitely options out there (in) both directions,” Grubb said. “Now it’s up to me to decide what I want to do. I’ve kind of scratched a lot of things off the bucket list now, and I’m honestly not sure what direction I’m going to go with my family and everything else, too.
“Maybe it’s time to sit back and take a little bit of time at home. Then again, I enjoy this, I’m young and I really feel like I’ve got a lot left to prove in the sport, too.”
Grubb said he’ll consider every opportunity presented to him, but wherever he lands, he won’t go with the sole motivator of wanting to prove Stewart wrong.
“I want to keep my integrity,” Grubb said. “I don’t want to do it for spite. I don’t want to do it for any ill doing but we want to go out there and win championships in the future, (and) whether it be in a management role or a crew chief role, I’ll decide next week.”