Why Tony Stewart’s 2011 NASCAR Cup Championship Was One of the Strangest in History

Tony Stewart would not just win the season-ending race of the 2011 NASCAR Cup Season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he also tied Carl Edwards points-wise for the championship. But because Stewart won five races that season—all in the playoffs—to just one win all season for Edwards, Stewart won the championship via the first tie-breaker.

In front of then-First Lady Michelle Obama and future First Lady Jill Biden, no less.

If the way Stewart won the title wasn’t weird enough, members of the media and fans around the world had no idea what was about to transpire after Stewart hoisted the Sprint Cup championship trophy.

When Stewart and team co-owner Gene Haas sat on the podium in the Homestead media center, one man was quite conspicuous by his initial absence, namely, crew chief Darian Grubb. He eventually walked up and, in what appeared to be an almost hesitant fashion, took a seat.

But the look on Grubb’s face was one not of jubilation and celebration, nor was his body drenched in celebratory champagne. Rather, he looked like someone who had just lost his favorite pet.

In this case, though, Grubb did indeed lose something very valuable, for less than an hour after his driver won the championship, Grubb had quickly gone from championship-winning crew chief to a fired crew chief.

His last day with Stewart-Haas Racing was also his last race for the organization as well.

Never in NASCAR history has a championship-winning crew chief been let go after playing such a significant role in leading his team to the most coveted achievement in the sport.

When it was revealed that Grubb indeed was out at SHR, the response among reporters was a mix of disbelief, shock and verbal exasperation of “how could they fire him?” after being such an integral part of Stewart’s championship.

Grubb knew going into the season finale that he was done with SHR as soon as the checkered flag flew. He actually had been informed after the fifth race – the mid-point of the 10-race Cup playoffs –at Charlotte Motor Speedway that he would be released at season’s end.

Even though he easily could have walked away after Charlotte and said “screw this,” Grubb was the consummate professional. He kept his upcoming fate to himself, known only to a select few in the SHR camp, one of the best-kept secrets that NASCAR has seen in a long time.

To double-down even more, Grubb then went to work even harder, leading Stewart to wins in three of the remaining five races – and five overall wins in the 10-race playoffs – culminating with the championship.

Stewart came into the playoffs that year having endured a mediocre 26-race “regular season”. He had failed to win even one race in that period, consistently ranked mainly between ninth and 12th in the standings for much of that same time frame, and began the playoffs in ninth place (this was before the elimination playoff format was introduced in the 2014 season).

Even worse than going winless in that 26-race stretch, Stewart managed just three top-five finishes during the same period.

He even quipped after the regular season finale at Richmond that “we don’t belong in the playoffs” because of the team’s overall lousy performance and record up to that point.

Then came one of the greatest comebacks in NASCAR history. Stewart won the playoff opener at Chicago, then won again the following week at New Hampshire. Yet even amidst the complete turnaround of the team’s fortunes, three weeks later, Grubb was given his walking papers, effective at season’s end.

When Grubb sat on the championship podium alongside Stewart and Haas, he remained a stoic example of professionalism. But at the same time, he also looked like a guy who was on the verge of tears.

And no one could have blamed him if he did start to weep.

But no, Grubb took everything in stride and wrapped up his tenure in true gentlemanly fashion.

Not surprisingly, SHR was heavily criticized for its unprecedented move. Grubb tried to tone down things by making an off-handed comment that maybe he might come back: “We’ll see if things change now.”

But things did not change. Grubb’s three-year tenure as crew chief for Stewart and the No. 14 Chevrolet—including sharing 11 wins with Stewart during that partnership—was over. There would be no reconsideration on SHR’s part.

Obviously, that incident illustrated just how cold and cruel of a business NASCAR can sometimes be.

Less than three weeks later, Joe Gibbs Racing hired Grubb to be Denny Hamlin’s crew chief. While the pairing showed great signs of promise in the 2012 season, with Hamlin winning five races before sliding backwards near the end of the season to finish a disappointing sixth in the final standings. Ironically, had Hamlin won his first Cup championship, Grubb would have had the rare distinction of being one of the only Cup crew chiefs to win back-to-back championships with two different drivers and two different teams.

But to paraphrase William Shakespeare, the back-to-back championship hope would ultimately be not to be.

Ironically, Hamlin is still in pursuit of his first Cup championship. He gets another chance at that elusive goal in Sunday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway, facing off with Kyle Larson, defending Cup champ Chase Elliott and JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr.

Grubb remained with JGR through the 2015 season, serving as Hamlin’s crew chief for nearly 100 races between 2012 and 2014 (Hamlin finished third in the final standings), as well as Edwards’ crew chief in 2015 (finished fifth). Grubb would return to his longtime prior home at Hendrick Motorsports in 2017, serving as crew chief for nine races with Kasey Kahne, and his last full season as crew chief for William Byron’s rookie Cup campaign in 2018.

On Sunday, Grubb will wrap up his first season as Performance Director for Chip Ganassi Racing. But now, 10 years after he was out of a job after Stewart’s championship, it’s unclear whether Grubb will remain with the team once Justin Marks officially takes over CGR next week, having purchased the organization outright from Ganassi earlier this year.

Carl Edwards‘ 2011 Ford 400 Saga

Grubb wasn’t the only big story of the final week of the 2011 season.

Edwards had been a very formidable opponent of Stewart’s all season long.

But Champion’s Week—the run-up to the championship race that included Media Day in the sand on Miami Beach’s famous South Beach—was also unusual.

Edwards came into that press conference in an almost awestruck fashion. He was uncharacteristically quiet and reserved, while Stewart talked trash and tried to unnerve Edwards to potentially get him off his game on race day.

“We have everything to gain, nothing to lose,” Stewart said at the time. “It’s a dangerous combination to put us in that kind of mode because we’ve been hot lately, we’ve been running good, we’re feeling good, the team is feeling good about everything. You couldn’t ask for a better scenario.”

Edwards appeared to have a deer in the headlights look on his face, seemingly perplexed and uncomfortable at Stewart’s over-the-top persona that day. He seemed to struggle to answer media questions at times and it was clear that he would not take the bait Stewart offered to engage in a tete-a-tete trash-talking war.

To his credit, Edwards may have just been so focused on the championship race that he did his best not to let Stewart’s trash-talking get to him.

And on race day, Edwards let his driving do his talking for him. He started from the pole (Stewart started 15th), led a race-high 119 laps (to 65 for Stewart), but watched as Stewart passed him late in the race and could not get past his rival in the final 36 laps that the No. 14 led en route to the championship.

Here’s an excerpt of one of the post-race stories I wrote that day (in italics):

To add insult to injury, there was no way Edwards could win the championship outright other than winning the race. Instead, he finished second to Stewart’s first, leaving the two drivers tied in points after the race, until Stewart was awarded the championship via the tie-breaker for having more wins that season than his opponent.

Here’s the lead paragraphs from one of the stories I wrote about that race:

Stewart then quipped:

Unfortunately for Edwards, in the end he didn’t win, losing by 1.306 seconds, while Stewart fulfilled a prophesy he uttered a few days earlier that he would not let Edwards or anyone else impede: “I’d wreck my mom to win a championship.”

Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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