It was one of the most surreal scenes I've ever witnessed in more than three decades of sports writing and broadcasting.
It was last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Tony Stewart had just won his third career Sprint Cup championship and crew chief Darian Grubb was being quizzed by the media almost exclusively about that being his last race with Stewart Haas Racing and virtually nothing about the Cup crown that he had just directed Stewart to.
Instead of hootin', hollerin' and whoopin' it up, Grubb had a decided combined deer in the headlights meets scratching his head in confusion look upon his face. He had just won his first career championship as a crew chief, only to know that he would be out of a job the very next day.
It was a move unprecedented in the world of sports: firing the guy that had just led you to a championship, essentially telling him that while he had just engineered a championship run, he wasn't good enough to continue with your team and organization.
Was Stewart Haas Racing wrong both in firing—and the way it did—Darian Grubb after he helped lead the team to the Sprint Cup championship last season?
This was the same Darian Grubb that was told heading into the Chase for the Sprint Cup that his then-winless team would no longer need his services after the 2011 campaign.
This was also the same Darian Grubb that would go on to lead Stewart to a record five wins in the 10-race Chase, and then capped things off with the Cup championship.
And what does he get in return for all his hard work and this accomplishment? He's replaced by Steve Addington.
It's a move that will forever leave me and millions of other NASCAR fans puzzled.
There have been a number of theories since then that Grubb's unceremonious—if not downright embarrassing—dumping may not have been all of Stewart's doing. Some have speculated that Grubb was sacked by team co-owner Gene Haas, the money man behind the SHR organization, or perhaps team general manager Joe Custer, and that Stewart was left helpless to convince them otherwise.
It's probably a mystery that we'll never know the real answer to—or at least until someone writes a tell-all book in a few years. If that happens, put me down as being first in line to get a copy of that tome indeed.
Now, fast-forward to today. Even though he has three wins in 2012, Stewart has struggled brutally in the last few races, finishing 19th, 32nd, 27th and 22nd Sunday night at Atlanta. Even worse, Stewart has fallen from fifth to 10th in the standings over the last seven weeks—and runs the risk of falling outside the top 10 after this coming Saturday's final Chase qualifying race at Richmond.
While his three wins have locked Stewart into the Chase, if he leaves Richmond in 11th or 12th position, he will by NASCAR rules lose the nine bonus points he's amassed from this season's wins—and that could be detrimental if not downright devastating to his hopes to repeat as Sprint Cup champion for the second consecutive year.
Oh yes, and let's not forget the sudden spate of rumors that surfaced in the last week that Stewart may do to Addington what he did to Grubb at season's end: fire him and replace him with someone else—the smart money pointing to Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's long-time former crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing, and now competition director at Stewart Haas Racing (and crew chief for the 10 Cup races that Danica Patrick will compete in this season).
After all that, you have to wonder if somewhere, privately, Grubb is smiling big—if not laughing his butt off. After essentially being told he wasn't good enough to remain with the cool kids at Stewart Haas Racing, he's helped turn around Denny Hamlin's season—if not potentially his career. Hamlin's win Sunday night at Atlanta was his fourth of the season, taking over the series lead for most wins he previously shared with Stewart.
And while Stewart has floundered miserably of late, Hamlin has excelled, having won the last two races and taken over the tentative top seed in the upcoming Chase.
It's a little too early to say Grubb has gotten some semblance of redemption and satisfaction against Stewart and his organization for the way they treated him last season, but honestly, could you blame him if he's gloating even slightly right now?
What's more, what happens if Grubb potentially becomes what would likely be the first crew chief in NASCAR history to lead two different drivers to the Cup championship in consecutive years?
Many observers think Stewart did Grubb wrong at the end of last season, essentially telling the date that got you to the dance (the Chase) and then led you to waltz to five wins and the title, that you're leaving with someone else.
If there's justice in the NASCAR world to people who felt he was done wrong, Grubb is getting it right now, while Stewart—or at the very least, SHR—is paying for what was done to the former crew chief of the No. 14 Chevrolet.
And if things continue the same way over the next 11 races, Stewart's broad smile after winning last year's championship will soon be supplanted by Grubb getting the last laugh indeed.