KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sitting atop the pit box for Furniture Row Racing, crew chief Cole Pearn allowed himself a pleasant thought.
“Man, maybe we’re going to ease into this one,” Pearn contemplated.
The No. 78 driven by Martin Truex Jr. had taken the pole and the No. 1 pit stall that came with it and was running away with the Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Truex was in the process of racking up the most laps led in the race for the second straight year. Twelve months after leading 95 laps in the spring race at Kansas, Truex would total 172, a team record for Furniture Row Racing.
Then came Lap 212.
That’s when Truex pitted from the lead for what should have been his final stop of the night.
The second Truex left the pit box at the end of pit road, his Toyota began shaking.
“‘You got to be kidding me’ was my reaction,” Truex said following the race, once again leaning against his car in defeat rather than standing on it in celebration.
With 55 laps left, Truex tried thinking of a reason his car was misbehaving at the worst possible time.
“Maybe it’s shaking because it’s got tape on it or something stupid,” Truex thought.
It wasn’t tape or a lack of lug nuts. All four tires were on tight.
“A bolt that holds that right-front brake hat, one of the heads broke off for whatever reason,” Pearn said. “(It) holds the brake rotor on basically. The small head of the bolt broke off and got hung in the wheel when it went on.”
That’s what forced Truex back to pit road on Lap 215. When the No. 78 returned to the action, Truex was a lap down.
“You always know there’s the possibility of those things happening, you just hope they’re earlier in the race so you can overcome them,” said Truex. “We certainly had a car fast enough we could have overcome it if it was earlier.”
Two late cautions would allow Truex to return to the lead lap, but he ran out of time, finishing 14th. When Truex emerged from his car on pit road, he was approached by an apologetic Joe Gibbs. Furniture Row Racing is aligned with Gibbs’ organization.
“The pit crew guys train at his place, so he felt responsible,” Truex said. ” (He) just wanted to let me know what it was.”
For once, it was bad luck.
It’s the second race of the year Truex has led the most laps and failed to win. During the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Truex led 141 laps. Then under a late caution, Pearn called the No. 78 to pit road and had to watch as the rest of the leaders stayed out.
Busch won, Truex finished sixth.
Last year under the Kansas lights, Pearn had Truex pit for fuel during a late caution. In his rear-view mirror, Truex had to watch as the rest of the field stayed on the track.
Jimmie Johnson won, Truex finished ninth.
Truex would lead the most laps – 131 each – in the next two races at Charlotte and Dover, but fail to win. He finally broke through at Pocono Raceway the week after Dover.
The No. 78 hasn’t been back to victory lane since.
“It’s frustrating when you’ve had it happen so many times in your career,” said Truex, who leaves Kansas 10th in points. “I swear, you watch guys win races that don’t have the best car, on fuel mileage and all this stuff and it’s like, damn. Someday I’m going to get on the (right) side of one of them. It’s usually dominate and don’t win.”
But even while on the wrong side of circumstance once again, Truex recognizes he’s in the best place he’s been during his 11 seasons racing full-time in the Sprint Cup Series.
“Without a doubt, that’s why I don’t get down and lose my mind when things like this happen,” Truex said. “We’re going to win races. Whether we win four or one before the Chase, it really doesn’t matter, we won one last year and we made it to the final four.”
And then there’s Pearn, who allowed himself to contemplate the possibility of a well-earned win.
The second-year crew chief has one win with Truex, but sticking the landing a second time is proving difficult. How does he keep his spirits up?
“You’ve got no choice, I think maybe last year, I was mad after this one last year, but now I’ve experienced going through it,” Pearn said. “We’re obviously doing something right, but we’re not doing something else right.”