AVONDALE, Ariz. — Who knew? We went to a race weekend in Phoenix and got an exorcism as a bonus.
Driver Denny Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb both buried ghosts at flat, one-mile Phoenix International Raceway.
In Hamlin’s case, the track had haunted him since November 2010. In the next-to-last race of the season, Hamlin had a chance to bury Jimmie Johnson’s quest for a fifth straight Sprint Cup championship and had the car to do it.
The clear class of the field, Hamlin led 190 laps, but a major miscalculation by the brain trust on his pit box left Hamlin short on fuel in the closing laps at the same time Johnson and most of the rest of the field were saving gas.
Forced to pit while others stretched their fuel to the end of the race, Hamlin finished 12th to Johnson’s fifth and lost 18 points of his 33-point championship lead.
He might as well have lost a million. Despondent after the blunder at Phoenix, Hamlin squandered his chance at a first NASCAR Sprint Cup title the following Sunday at Homestead, where a lackluster qualifying run led to trouble in traffic and a spin off Turn 2 early in the race.
Faced with a barrage of questions about his failure, Hamlin spent most of 2011 in a funk, winning just one race and narrowly qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. It was a marked contrast with 2010, when Hamlin won a series-best eight times.
Judging from his demeanor and his performance on Sunday, Hamlin has put the ghost of Phoenix to rest once and for all — and he did so with masterful help from Grubb, who had his own goblins to silence.
Halfway through last year’s Chase, owner/driver Tony Stewart told Grubb he would not be retained as crew chief after the 2011 season. Forget that Stewart went on to win five of 10 Chase races and his third championship. Stewart had his eye on Steve Addington, who had become disenchanted with his role as Kurt Busch’s crew chief at Penske Racing.
Grubb quickly landed the job as Hamlin’s crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Mike Ford. Still, the dismissal from Stewart-Haas Racing had to hurt, and Grubb’s performance in his first open-motor race with Hamlin — after Hamlin’s career-best fourth in the Daytona 500 — was a validation of his ability.
So were Hamlin’s comments after the race.
“It just seemed like we kept improving our car,” Hamlin said. “I think the turning point for us was that green-flag pit stop (on Lap 188 of 312). Whatever he did to the car at that point was just lights-out after that.”
While Hamlin charged to the front, Stewart floundered, falling back from his front-row starting position. If Grubb could have heard the radio chatter between Stewart and Addington, he might have enjoyed the exchange — though he’d never admit it publicly.
After Stewart shut off his engine under caution in an attempt to save fuel and couldn’t get the engine to re-fire, the No. 14 Chevrolet lost two laps on pit road. Stewart suggested to Addington that they try something different for the remainder of the race, because the previous adjustments to the car weren’t working.
After the race, Grubb would allow only that there was a “little but of vindication” in winning early in his partnership with Hamlin. Grubb is simply too nice a guy to say more.
The victory at Phoenix, however, spoke volumes. Hamlin exuded a calm confidence that suggests that 2010 finally is gone and forgotten. Grubb seems the perfect complement to the ability and personality of his driver.
Both have something to prove — and together they’re well on the way to doing just that.