No secrets: From setups to strategy, group chat among some crew chiefs shares all

Photo by Dustin Long
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CONCORD, N.C. — As Martin Truex Jr. led fellow Toyota driver Carl Edwards at Dover earlier this month, crew chief Cole Pearn plotted his strategy, wondering what Edwards’ crew chief, Dave Rogers, planned to do.

So Pearn asked Rogers.

He messaged him, actually.

“Come on man, throw me a bone,’’ Rogers recalled Pearn’s note. “Tell me when you’re going to pit.’’

Pearn, Rogers and his fellow Joe Gibbs Racing crew chiefs are on a group chat with Andy Graves, group vice president, technical director for Toyota Racing Development, USA. They share information throughout the week and an occasional quip — often by Pearn. The chat doesn’t stop when the race starts.

Group chats are not new in NASCAR among crew chiefs on the same team or alliance. Graves recalls a more modest system in place at Hendrick Motorsports when he served as Terry Labonte’s crew chief from 1997-99.

With team computers showing each car’s setup and pertinent information, crew chiefs know what their teammates are doing at all times. Joe Gibbs Racing has incorporated Furniture Row Racing’s Truex so that the information available to each team is if they truly were teammates.

Even with all that information to both Toyota teams, the group chat provides answers to questions about key issues, setup notes and other matters. The more a crew chief knows, the more informed their decisions can be.

Still, what about asking a teammate/competitor on strategy that could hurt them?

It’s all fair.

“What did you tell him?’’ Edwards asked Rogers upon hearing of Pearn’s Dover request. “Get back to you in a minute?’’

They laughed.

No, that’s not what Rogers told Pearn.

Before Rogers revealed how he responded, he recalled that weekend and the struggles Rogers and Edwards had with their car during practice. It was confusing because the setup had worked so well previously. As they tried to figure out how to be faster, Truex posted quick times.

Rogers told his engineers to get Truex’s setup and they would change Edwards’ car to match what Truex had with his.

Edwards went faster.

So when Pearn’s request came during the race asking about what lap Edwards would pit, Rogers responded in the only way he could.

“I told him what I was going to do,’’ Rogers said.

As Graves watched the exchange on the chat, he beamed.

“It’s competitive inside, but not to the point that we’re willing to jeopardize the good of the whole,’’ he said.

That’s the message ingrained in the teams. There’s a closeness between JGR and Furniture Row Racing that is different from when Michael Waltrip Racing was with Toyota. The group chat for JGR and MWR crew chiefs primarily was used during restrictor-plate events at Daytona and Talladega.

It’s used constantly among JGR and Furniture Row Racing.

“There’s no question that each one of us wants to be the top team every week,’’ Rogers said. “If you didn’t, you don’t belong in this sport. But we all know that our unity and our sharing of information is going to separate us from the field. It’s a heck of a lot easier to beat four guys than it is to beat 39. So if we work together, and we can separate our group and fight amongst ourselves, our odds of winning are better.’’

Pearn said the openness will keep their working relationship strong.

“Once you go down the path of hiding from each other is when most teammate relationships break down,’’ he said. “You hide one time, and it’s easier to do the next time, and you just slowly drift apart.’’

Another key to the group chat is that Graves can add his insight on matters, including things during the race the other crew chiefs might be too busy to notice.

Graves noticed during that Dover race that Dale Earnhardt Jr., running outside the top 10 at the time, was saving fuel to make it to the end based on his slower lap times. Graves altered his crew chiefs to the maneuver. In the end, it didn’t matter when Earnhardt was collected in the 18-car crash late in that event, but it could have.

The cooperation was evident Thursday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Truex and Edwards were staged next to each other on pit road during Coca-Cola 600 qualifying. Before the final session, which would determine the pole, Rogers walked over to Pearn and talked briefly. Truex went on to win the pole.

“There’s no information that is not shared,’’ Rogers said.

As a result, Joe Gibbs Racing has won seven of the first 12 points races this season, and Truex seems on the cusp of winning.