Engineer for Jimmie Johnson has racing in his blood
Ever since Darian Grubb was a kid, folks always knew he would find success in racing. Back then, it was just the 400-some people in his hometown of Floyd, Va., where young Grubb's obsession with go-karts and anything on four wheels traveled fast across the town, which has a land area measuring all of half a square mile.
Back then, though, the town figured he'd find success on one of stock-car racing's minor-league levels and with nationally unknown Floyd County racers.
So although the 30-year-old, all-of-a-sudden crew chief shocked the world last weekend when he called his driver to a Daytona 500 championship in his first time at the helm of a race team, he managed to surprise a few of the neighbors, too.
That's when the e-mails and the phone calls started flooding in.
"People I haven't talked to in years," he said.
Grubb was thrown into the spotlight midway through Daytona Speedweeks when Chad Knaus, crew chief for the No. 48 Chevrolet driven by Jimmie Johnson, was ejected from Daytona activities for an illegal modification to the car. Grubb was named as his fill-in and instantly became a focus of attention.
Grubb's steady rise into NASCAR's who's who was prompted by chance all along. The weekend racer and car nut went to work for Volvo in Greensboro, N.C., after receiving a degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech. In 1999, he took a shot by posting his résumé online on a racing headhunter's site. With a click of the submit button, he put the post behind him and went back to work.
Until he got a call from NASCAR royalty, son of the King. Kyle Petty wanted Grubb to come aboard to help develop the Dodge Intrepid, which would debut in NASCAR's Cup Series in 2001. Interestingly, the Intrepid found immediate success, just like Grubb, when driver Bill Elliott put one on the pole position for the Daytona 500 in the model's very first NASCAR qualifying attempt.
After working on the Intrepid, Grubb landed a gig with another former Hokie -- Brian Whitesell, team manager for two horses in Hendrick Motorsports' then three-car stable. Grubb helped develop a fourth Hendrick team, working with budding crew chief Knaus, driver Johnson and the No. 48 Monte Carlo.
Entering this past Sunday's Daytona 500, Grubb had become Hendrick Motorsports' lead engineer, sitting atop Johnson's pit box -- just two spots down from Knaus -- and acting as liaison between the teams. After Knaus was ejected, chance once again visited Grubb and provided an opportunity for excellence.
Why choose Grubb over team members who had served as a crew chief in the past?
"The great thing about the decision we made with Darian to come in and crew-chief this was his involvement with the team for so many years," Johnson said. "He's worked alongside Chad as our race engineer and was involved in all the conversations when Chad and I would talk [during races]. You know, the handling of the car, the different things that I communicate to Chad, Darian is right there in the window with him documenting things and a part of that conversation."
Not only that, but when Knaus is considering race strategy, he's talking to Grubb constantly. Grubb is Knaus' race-day right-hand man.
Johnson said he could see why during the race. Hearing Grubb in his ear through the team radio, and communicating with him during the race, wasn't uncomfortable. Johnson said he felt as though he needed to step up and be more vocal, but he also felt confident placing his trust in Grubb.
For his part, Grubb kept it together.
"I honestly really wasn't that nervous up until the checkered flag fell," Grubb said. "I just sat there and I just knew I had faith in all the rest of the team, the team that Chad built, this Hendrick Motorsports Lowe's team. Everybody did their job. The pit stops were absolutely incredible."
Even as the race wound down and Johnson, leading the race, was only a few laps short of winning his first Daytona 500, Grubb stayed cool.
" We had the best car and best driver out there, and he was in first," Grubb reasoned. "Why would I be nervous?"
That kind of calm under fire is what Knaus loves about Grubb. Sure, the engineer had never crew chiefed a race, but he'd been racing forever. He knew the drill.
"He's a very intelligent guy," Knaus said. "He has a mechanical engineering degree, but that really doesn't mean a whole lot; that's just a piece of paper. But what you've got more so is the fact that he's a racer. He's worked in the production world. He's built race cars. He's done stuff like that. He's an awesome guy.
"I've won a lot of races with Darian on my side, and we're going to win a lot more."
No one can doubt that, but for the next three weeks -- as Knaus serves the remainder of his suspension -- Grubb has the opportunity to win apart from the man he calls a mentor. After winning the 500 his first time out, Grubb said he knows there's more pressure. The fact that the tracks coming up put more emphasis on driver-crew chief communication and race-day setup adjustments doesn't make his task any easier.
But he believes he's ready.
"This job is very hard," said Grubb, who added that he's happy being lead engineer and won't be looking for a full-time crew chief gig any time soon. "I don't want to kid anybody on that. Chad always has done a great job, but he has trained me very well. I've worked with him for three years straight. I think I've learned everything I've ever learned from him."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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