Long: Tears turn to cheers for Furniture Row Racing

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Among his final acts alive, James “Jim” Watson texted his wife Saturday night and told her what a great time he was having with his Furniture Row Racing teammates at a local go-kart track.

Soon after, the 55-year-old father suffered a fatal heart attack.

“I take a little bit of solace in that he was happy in his last moments,’’ said a misty-eyed Cole Pearn after Martin Truex Jr. rallied to win Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.

Pearn was on the way to the hospital Saturday night when he was told Watson died. The team later gathered at their hotel to grieve.

“We just all looked at each other and shed some tears and some hugs,’’ Pearn told NBC Sports.

No Cup team has faced so much personal adversity in such a public way this year as Furniture Row Racing. Its greatest season on the track has been offset by tragedy and tribulation.

Truex’s longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, had surgery in July for a recurrence of cancer. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in August 2014 and announced she was cancer-free in January 2016. Her ovarian cancer returned this summer. Truex won at Kentucky Speedway and brought her home from the hospital the next day. Her chemo treatments continue.

After the Kentucky race, Pearn’s closest childhood friend suddenly died after he caught a bacterial infection from a cut. Truex won that weekend at Watkins Glen to cap what Pearn called then “the hardest week of my life.’’

After Truex won at Charlotte two weeks ago, Pearn said “my wife and I put our dog down … that we’ve had for 13 years.

“It’s just like, man, I don’t know if regular life is supposed to be like this.’’

Then came Saturday night.

Watson had been with the team since February, joining as a fabricator, who worked on both the cars of Truex and Erik Jones. Watson was a longtime racer from Wisconsin.

“James was a friend to everybody,’’ said Joe Garone, president of Furniture Row Racing. “It’s hard to talk about.’’

Truex said both teams helped each other work through the pain while preparing for the race Sunday morning. Truex’s seventh victory of the season continued his dominance and is the most wins by a Cup driver in a season since Matt Kenseth won seven races in 2013.

Pearn called it “kind of overwhelming” to see Truex cross under the checkered flag ahead of the field less than 24 hours after Watson’s death. 

“I was doing OK and then I started seeing the faces on other guys,’’ Pearn told NBC Sports. “It just hits you like a ton of bricks.’’

When Truex won in the past, it had just been the No. 78 crew that gathered in Victory Lane. Sunday, the No. 77 crew also joined Truex’s team to celebrate a win and a life.

“Chris (Gayle) and I came to it … that if either one of us were fortunate enough to win, we’d both go to Victory Lane because Jim worked on both of our cars and was a part of both of our teams,’’ Pearn said of the crew chief for the No. 77 team.

It proved a fitting honor for Watson.

“He always wanted when we won to celebrate as a group,’’ Pearn said. “I just couldn’t think of any better way to pay tribute to him and know that he would have been happy with that call.’’

Tough night but the result was some solace we all needed. So proud of the team. For you Wildman RIP

A post shared by Cole Pearn (@colepearn) on

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Scan All, Xfinity, Truck championship recaps

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to recap the end of the NASCAR season.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman in Stamford, Connecticut. Dale Jarrett, Steve Letarte and Kyle Petty join them from NBC Charlotte.

What to expect from today’s show:

  • Martin Truex Jr. capped off a dream season, earning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship with a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway. We’ll take a listen back on all the action between the drivers, crew chiefs and spotters with “Scan All: Miami.”
  • This past weekend two other NASCAR titles were decided. Christopher Bell won the Camping World Truck Series title, while William Byron captured the 2017 Xfinity Series title. We’ll discuss the rapid surge of Byron as he prepares for his transition to the Cup Series next year.
  • Furniture Row Racing had a season filled with triumphs and heartache but it ended in celebration, as they won the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Martin Truex Jr. dominated all season long while he and his team overcame obstacles on and off the track. Nate Ryan tells their story.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Bump & Run: 2017 NASCAR accolades

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Who is your driver of the year?

Dustin Long: William Byron. While Martin Truex Jr. had the best season, I’m just amazed at what Byron has done with such little experience. Yes, he’s been in top equipment but he’s still had to wheel the car. What Byron already has done makes me wonder just what is to come.

Jerry Bonkowski: Martin Truex Jr. No other driver came close. One of best feel-good stories in NASCAR since Alan Kulwicki won the Cup championship in 1992.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr.. Eight wins, his first Cup title and too many career-best stats to list in the most memorable driver campaign over a full season in recent years.

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr. His 2017 ranks with Jimmie Johnson‘s 2007 as the best season of the 21st century in the Cup Series. From start to finish, it’s the best since Jeff Gordon‘s 1998 masterpiece.

 

Who is your rookie of the year?

Dustin Long: William Byron. See previous answer.

Jerry Bonkowski: William Byron. Has made it look easy thus far in his career. Now comes the real test with his promotion next season to Cup racing and Hendrick Motorsports.

Daniel McFadin: William Byron. Won the Xfinity title with four wins, the most among series regulars and once again proved how quickly he can adept to a new level of racing.

Nate Ryan: William Byron. Shows signs of being the most adaptive and talented driver of his generation. When Kyle Busch is praising your “race craft” at the tender age of 19, you are special.

 

Who is your crew chief of the year?

Dustin Long: Cole Pearn. Was strong throughout the season and finished it with a split-second pit call that put Martin Truex Jr. in position to win the championship and close out a fantastic season.

Jerry Bonkowski: Cole Pearn. Overcame adversity several times, kept his cool most of the time, planned strategy methodically and if he or team made a mistake, admitted it and moved on. I truly believe he and Martin Truex Jr. have another one or two more championships in them. 

Daniel McFadin: Cole Pearn. In the first year of the stage format, he figured it out quicker than anyone and schooled the field all season long with Martin Truex Jr.

Nate Ryan: Cole Pearn. For his mastery of stages alone, he earned this crown. But for many other reasons — from his low-key and unthreatening affability that allows him to work seamlessly with Joe Gibbs Racing with a disarming ease … to his disdain for hierarchy that grants his co-workers empowering autonomy that other crew chiefs refuse to cede … to his simple choice of T-shirt over firesuit (“I don’t plan on getting on fire.”) as anti-establishment crew chief attire — he is changing the paradigm of being a team leader in NASCAR.

 

After seeing this playoff format for the first time, is there anything with it or related to it you’d consider changing for next year? Why?

Dustin Long: I’m fine with how it went. Let’s be careful of changing things for change’s sake.

Jerry Bonkowski: While I like the stages format, I feel that each race should be broken down into three stages of equal length. In other words, if it’s a 267-lap race, it should be divided equally to where each stage is 89 laps. Also, I’d like to see lap counting stop after each of the first two stages and resume on the ensuing restart, unlike what we see now where the second and final stages oftentimes log six or seven laps under caution before a restart for the next stage. 

Daniel McFadin: I like this format immensely after just one season. The only change I would like to see is making sure caution laps after stage conclusions don’t count. Starting a stage with four to five laps already ticked off takes away from the fan experience and gives less race for drivers and teams to work with.

Nate Ryan: A minor quibble: The “format” for selecting a champion didn’t change, just the manner in which points were accrued to determine one. That said, the addition of playoff points and stages worked well, producing the most worthy field of championship contenders yet and a deserving champion whose bona fides were tested as much or more than any other since NASCAR switched to a playoff-style structure in 2004.

Virginia’s Motor Mile Speedway to end short track racing, drops NASCAR sanction

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Motor Mile Speedway has decided to not renew its NASCAR sanction for 2018, ending its reign as a circle track.

The .416-mile paved oval track in Fairlawn, Virginia, will undergo a significant transformation starting next year which does not include short track racing. A NASCAR Home Track, it has hosted the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series for a number of years and hosted a number of then-Busch Series races nearly 30 years ago.

While it may return to host some select racing events in the future, track officials in a news release announced it will soon host “a variety of entertainment and sporting events.”

“We have tried to make the speedway successful, but with a downturn in interest, it’s increasingly difficult to make it work,” Speedway co-owner David Hagan said in a media release. “We are looking at a variety of events to bring new life and excitement to the property.

“The schedule could include everything from concerts, mud runs, festivals, camping, and even new racing events at some point.  You name it and it’s probably come up at our table.”

Located about an hour southwest of Roanoke, Virginia, the speedway sits on a 170-acre parcel of land. While the speedway will cease holding races, it’s adjacent drag strip will continue to operate for sportsman racing.

Click here for the full media release from the speedway.

NASCAR issues three lug nut penalties in final penalty report of season

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NASCAR has issued three penalties to crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts following the championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jason Ratcliff, crew chief on the No. 20 Toyota driven by Matt Kenseth, has been fined $20,000 and suspended one Cup points race for two unsecured lug nuts.

Ratcliff will be moving to the Xfinity Series to serve as Christopher Bell’s crew chief next season. The suspension is series specific. So he will be available to crew chief Bell in the season-opening race at Daytona.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief on Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Ford, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Camping World Truck Series, Phil Gould, crew chief on Ryan Truex‘s No. 16 Toyota, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.