New driver-crew chief combos hit the ground running at Phoenix
Denny Hamlin, new crew chief Darian Grubb hit Victory Lane at Phoenix on Sunday
They weren't alone: 11 of top 24 drivers from '11 entered '12 with new crew chief
On Sunday, eight of top 12 finishers had a different crew chief than they had in '11
Gavin Grubb is learning. And so is his father.
The toddler has had to adjust to Darian Grubb working as a crew chief for another driver and it hasn't been easy. Grubb noted before the season how his son would run around the house and occasionally shout Tony Stewart's name instead of the name of his father's new driver, Denny Hamlin.
That was understandable. Since his son's birth, Grubb had only worked with Stewart -- until he was released after helping Stewart win last year's championship.
Sunday, as Grubb celebrated with Hamlin in Victory Lane at Phoenix, his wife sent a photo of their son.
Gavin held his No. 11 Teddy Bear and raised his index finger.
It has taken a few months but he seems to be adjusting to dad's new driver.
"He's learning,'' Grubb said through the smile of a proud father.
Now it's a matter of how far Grubb and Hamlin can go with each other -- along with the other new driver-crew chief combinations in the Sprint Cup series this year.
A hectic offseason saw numerous driver and crew chief changes, creating many questions about this year. Eleven of the top 24 drivers in points last season entered this year with a new crew chief.
The biggest question was if any of those pairings could overcome history. A new driver-crew chief combination has not won a Cup title in nearly 20 years.
Last week's Daytona 500 didn't provide many clues as to which new groupings will succeed and which won't. There's not much for drivers and crew chiefs to change at a restrictor-plate race because so much of the car is legislated by NASCAR.
Sunday's race at Phoenix was different. With fewer restrictions, communication between driver and crew chief was critical. Changes to shocks, springs, wedge and more could greatly impact the car.
Add in a speedway reconfigured last year that competitors are still trying to figure out along with warm temperatures that made the track slick, there was much for drivers and crew chiefs to discuss.
Even Hamlin said he struggled in Friday's practices, but added that he kept getting better as Grubb made adjustments. Hamlin's car also improved throughout Sunday's race.
That Hamlin won in only his second race with Grubb is significant, showing how well they work together. It wasn't just them, though. Runner-up Kevin Harvick has a new crew chief this season in former crew chief Shane Wilson. Third-place finisher Greg Biffle also has a different crew chief than he had at this race a year ago. Matt Puccia became Biffle's crew chief in July. Eight of the top 12 finishers in Sunday's race had a different crew chief than they had with them at this race a year ago.
New pairings rarely guarantee success, but they can have quite an impact. Just look at Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s season last year with Steve Letarte. In their first year together, Earnhardt opened the season with seven top-12 finishes in the first eight races, climbing to third in the points. While Earnhardt would stumble later in the season, he made the Chase and scored his highest finish since 2006. Letarte's fast cars and his cheerleading helped lift Earnhardt's confidence and help him contend for a few victories.
That's what Hamlin wanted after his struggles last season. After nearly winning the title in 2010, Hamlin was more of an afterthought last year, winning only once and scoring the fewest top-five and top-10 finishes in a season since moving to Cup full-time in 2006.
As he struggled, he sought a sports psychologist, changed crew chiefs and watched as his team began taking its engines from Toyota Racing Development instead of having them come from the race shop.
With all that behind him, Hamlin was elated to hit Victory Lane on Sunday.
"Man, it feels good to be competitive again, thank you so much,'' Hamlin said on the radio as he took the checkered flag.
He wasn't alone in feeling that way.
Even though he ran out of fuel and finished second, Harvick didn't complain on his radio. After car owner Richard Childress congratulated Harvick on the run, Harvick replied: "It's going to be a good year.''
Harvick was excited about running toward the front most of the race -- he led a race-high 88 laps -- after finishing a lap down in 19th at the track in November.
"We all want to win, but in the end, finishing second and being in contention for race wins and having the speed in the car is really what you're looking for early in the year, and if you can knock out a couple wins, that's what you want to do,'' Harvick said.
"We have to build it one week at a time, and that confidence and that character that comes with winning or losing is part of it,'' Harvick said.
Biffle, who has opened the season with a pair of third-place finishes, credited Puccia with Sunday's finish, showing how well they're working together.
"The reason why we got two third-place finishes is because of his leadership and his decision making on pit road on what to do to the car,'' Biffle said of Puccia.
One driver who ran in the top 10 throughout Sunday's race was Tony Stewart, who also has a new crew chief. Stewart's 22nd-place finish, though, couldn't be blamed on a misstep between he and crew chief Steve Addington. While trying to save fuel, Stewart shut his motor off, a typical practice, but then it wouldn't restart. He would lose two laps and not be a factor late in the race.
Hamlin, though, warned about judging new driver and crew chief pairings after two races.
"I honestly feel like it's going to be realistically two months before we're totally clicking and knowing exactly what each other is saying and talking about,'' Hamlin said of he and Grubb.
The variety of tracks in the next few weeks will test drivers and crew chiefs. The series heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend for its first race on a 1.5-mile track. Then it's back to a short track at Bristol before the high-speed, two-mile Auto Club Speedway, a short track race at Martinsville and then a trip to Texas to race on another 1.5-mile speedway.
By mid-April, it will become evident which pairings are strongest and which need fine-tuning.
By then, Gavin Grubb should have no trouble telling people who his daddy's driver is.