THE CHIEF MAKES THE PLAN; THE CREW HAS SECONDS TO EXECUTE IT
The most valuable person in NASCAR over the last 15 months, many garage insiders will tell you, is someone most fans couldn't pick out of a two-person lineup: Darian Grubb. Last year Grubb was the crew chief for Tony Stewart, and largely thanks to a setup that Grubb designed, Stewart won five of the 10 Chase races and took the 2011 Sprint Cup crown. This season Grubb, 36, took over atop the pit box of Denny Hamlin and has guided Hamlin to four victories so far. So over the last 37 Cup races, Grubb has been the winning crew chief 24.3% of the time.
What makes Grubb, who has a degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech, such a master of speed? He understands setups as well as anyone in the garage, and his aggressive pit calls—choosing, for instance, to take only two tires over four late in a race to gain track position, gambling that the old tires will hold up—have mostly been spot-on over the last two years. "Darian is so calculating, calm and smart," says Chase contender Greg Biffle, whose Roush Fenway Racing team has gone up against Hamlin and Grubb all season. "He's on a roll right now."
It's no coincidence that Grubb also manages one of the fastest pit crews in NASCAR. At Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sept. 2, Hamlin entered pit road for the final stop of the race in third place. Propelled by a two-tire stop performed by his six-man crew in a lightning-quick 11.93 seconds, Hamlin emerged with the lead as he sped off pit road. He never trailed again. "Pit crew won me that race," Hamlin said afterward. "That's what it takes to win a championship. You have to have all the pieces."
Like all the elite pit crews in NASCAR, the number 11 squad is populated by former college athletes. The jack man on the crew, who is responsible for hoisting the 3,400-pound speed machine three inches off the ground, is Nate Bolling, who played defensive end at Wake Forest and then spent time in the NFL, with Baltimore and Miami. He joined Hamlin's team in 2009. "Football taught me how to deal with pressure, and that's what we're facing with every pit stop," says the 6'4", 255-pound Bolling. "We're out there trying to be one tenth of a second faster than anyone else. One tenth is huge on pit road. You have to be flawless, because races can be won and lost with what we do."