LAS VEGAS (AP) - The champion and his race team sit together at the head table during NASCAR’s season-ending awards ceremony.
For Tony Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb, separated by just three seats Friday night on the stage in the Wynn Las Vegas Resort, it marked the final time they were together as a team. Despite winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Grubb has been fired from Stewart-Haas Racing and the replacement has already been hired.
It’s made for some awkward moments during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas, and Grubb’s wife, Yolanda, even quipped “we’re like the big elephant in the room everywhere we go.”
That’s not how it felt, though, during Grubb’s acceptance speech Thursday as the champion crew chief. As he struggled to keep his own composure, his words brought NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series director John Darby to tears and driver Carl Edwards hopped to his feet to start a rousing standing ovation for the fired champion crew chief.
“It’s definitely awkward,” Grubb said. “That’s the only problem with the situation. It’s awkward. We’re just trying to put that in the back of our head and go out and enjoy what we’ve accomplished. I think we’re doing a good job of that. But it’s tough.
“To win a championship, it’s one of the most special moments of my life. But also knowing that it’s coming to an end … that’s a tough thing for me. I’ve already got my office cleaned out and we’re getting ready to move on.”
The Grubb firing will leave a blemish on Stewart’s impressive third Cup championship.
Late in the summer, when Stewart was slumping, he said his No. 14 team didn’t even deserve a spot in the 12-driver field. Although the team eventually earned a berth, Stewart said he wasn’t a legitimate title contender.
Then he won the Chase opener at Chicago, and again the next week at New Hampshire.
Suddenly he was a very viable threat to bring a championship to SHR, the one-time fledgling race team Stewart became part owner of in 2009.
But he finished 25th the next week at Dover, and was 15th at Kansas to fall from first in points to seventh with six races remaining in the Chase. As the team headed into Charlotte, Stewart told Grubb he was letting him go at the end of the season.
“There were a group of us that sat down and had to make a decision and the decision was that we needed to go in a different direction,” Stewart said. “That decision was made before the Chase started. We said we wanted to finish this thing out strong together; we were going to do it to the end of the year.
“I’m very, very proud of the fact that through that, (Grubb) was able to do a great job and we were able to come out with a championship. It’s a pretty strong statement.”
Indeed it was.