Ryan: The secret to success for NASCAR’s smartest man? It’s simple

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The smartest man in NASCAR doesn’t care if you think he’s clever.

Actually, he’d probably prefer you think he’s a moron.

“Yeah, we’re not that smart,” Cole Pearn replied in that wonderfully dry wit when asked if he and Martin Truex Jr. communicated in code on the duplicitous pit stop that carried their victory Sunday at Sonoma Raceway. “We probably would screw it up.”

MORE: The story of how Cole Pearn got that large gash on his forehead

The self-deprecating answer playfully obfuscated the obvious: Pearn won by brilliantly fooling rival crew chief Rodney Childers into bringing Kevin Harvick from the lead into the pits earlier than planned.

The No. 78’s only path to victory lane was by virtue of getting off-sequence from the fastest car in the race, which means the defending series champion won by staying true to the core belief underpinning the team’s run of wild success the past three years.

Do what the other guy isn’t doing.

Furniture Row Racing adheres to that philosophy in spades.

It’s the only Cup team based in Denver, Colorado, a few thousand miles from a 100-mile radius in North Carolina that contains (and some might say sometimes constrains) the rest of the field.

–It’s a one-car powerhouse in a series where bigger always has been regarded as being better.

–It’s a strong-willed group that embraces the anti-establishment; outcasts who didn’t fit in at other outfits because they exist outside the norm.

Do what the other guy isn’t doing.

It’s a simple approach but yet also sophisticated – a dichotomy that makes perfect sense when viewed through the prism of meshing high-tech engineering principles that put cars in front and the gut-busting instincts that determine if they stay there.

The Cup garage is a breeding ground for groupthink. Haulers are parked inches apart on endless swaths of pavement, encouraging everyone to cheat off each other’s work. Even in a championship structure that rewards gambling for victories, the tendency of staying between the lines seems more prevalent than ever.

At Richmond, more than a dozen cars had an opportunity to gamble on a golden ticket to the playoffs, and yet none did.

At Michigan, only the winner even went slightly outside the norm despite literal storm clouds that hung over the notion of playing it safe (which had some crew chiefs tellingly blaming their weather apps).

There is logical grounding for this trend. More data is being crunched with algorithms and simulations to determine courses of action than ever. And if you step outside the lines and get risky with your strategy, you still can be punished.

All of which makes what Pearn did Sunday at Sonoma even more impressive: He didn’t just do something unconventional, he did it by forcing the competition off its game with a mind trick (“This is not the pit strategy you are looking for”) that would have left Obi-Wan blushing.

It’s how the No. 78 Toyota team turned the series on its ear and won a title last season: By constantly staying a step ahead of where its rivals wanted to go.

In 2018, the results haven’t been as bountiful, but the team’s spirit remains strong – underscored by something as amusing as a massive power saw. When your gadgetry is still being banned by NASCAR, it’s a sign of how effective you are in outmaneuvering the opposition – particularly at the tracks where being tactical is critical.

Truex now has led the most laps in three consecutive road-course races, the longest streak since Tony Stewart in 2004-05. His win was the first on three stops by a Sonoma winner since Carl Edwards in 2014.

Do what the other guy isn’t doing.

And use a dash of humility and understated bravado to help undersell it.

“It’s tough,” Pearn said. “Everybody is so good in this, it sometimes takes something different to mix it up to pull one out.”

Pearn’s right. It does take something different.

It takes boldness and brains.

He has both – and is using them to a degree currently unmatched by any crew chief in the Cup Series.


Kevin Harvick is a smart guy, too. But he sometimes disguises that intelligence, particularly when he intentionally tries to cover for his team.

This happened Sunday when he was asked about Pearn snookering his team with the final pit stop.

“It didn’t affect our day at all,” Harvick told reporters with a straight face in his postrace media center interview. “I don’t think it would have been any different of an outcome.”

As a star who has been taken his share of criticism for assailing many of his past teams’ pit stops and tactics throughout his career, give Harvick credit for abstaining from any further piling on of Childers and company.

But his assessment of Truex’s strategy was spurious at best. Childers told Harvick on the team radio that he was outwitted by Pearn. If the No. 4 Ford had pitted within a lap or two of Truex, Harvick easily had the long-run speed to win Sonoma for the second consecutive year.

Since 2014, no one has been better than Childers and Harvick at consistently fielding fast cars in Cup, but it’s been well documented that they also have left some wins on the table.

The sting of Sonoma will linger, but the No. 4 team has learned to shrug off the disappointments, in part because Harvick is willing to go to bat for his team and its leader in a way he didn’t as often before joining SHR.


The Big Three – Truex, Harvick and Kyle Busch – have been established for a while as the triple threat to win the championship in NASCAR’s premier series. At least two of those three have finished in the top five of the past six races.

But it’s time to add Clint Bowyer’s name and rebrand the title favorites as a foursome. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver’s third at Sonoma marked his first back-to-back top fives in a year, and it’s more than just Bowyer’s numbers that are turning heads.

He’s comfortable at SHR, has learned to trust crew chief Mike Bugarewicz and has rediscovered a tenacity that’s been lacking since his best season in 2012.

NBCSN analyst Jeff Burton recently picked Bowyer as the driver most likely to join Truex, Harvick and Busch in the championship finale. This was on a NASCAR America episode before Bowyer’s breakthrough at Michigan two weeks ago.

Burton also was way ahead of the curve in predicting Bowyer would emerge as a championship contender. Two days before Bowyer’s inaugural win Sept. 16, 2007 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Burton said his Richard Childress Racing teammate (then in his second year in Cup) was “the future of our sport.”

Nearly 11 years later, and after five winless seasons mostly wandering in the Cup wilderness, the future seems to have returned.


A curious moment occurred when the yellow flag flew with four laps remaining in the second stage Saturday night during the Camping World Truck Series race at Gateway Motorsports Park – and stayed there.

The caution that began on Lap 67 was for the slowing truck of Matt Crafton, whose Ford apparently had a mechanical problem. It stopped at the entrance of the pits but was rolling again with more than two laps left in the stage, which ended after Lap 70. A NASCAR spokesman said the stage wasn’t restarted because the pits couldn’t be opened.

Of course, opening the pits didn’t matter two weeks ago at Michigan International Speedway, where NASCAR kept the pits closed during a two-lap yellow and instead opted for a one-lap restart. Cup Series director Richard Buck told reporters that NASCAR’s policy was to make every attempt at ending stages under green.

Yet for some reason, there was no such alacrity at Gateway despite a caution that required no discernible cleanup. The second and final stages were bridged by a nine-lap caution that was the race’s second-longest (and longer than three cautions involving multicar crashes).

While it’s admirable to attempt to end stages under green, the policy should be consistent. If opening the pits wasn’t necessary at Michigan, it shouldn’t have been at Gateway.


Bid the drafting package goodbye until 2019 (and maybe forever – out of sight, out of mind is a racing truism, and there’ll be limited Cup lobbying of it for months), let’s lament again what its absence means for Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The 2017 edition of the Brickyard 400 was among the best in history, in large part because the two best cars were eliminated when Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. crashed on a restart while racing for the lead.

NASCAR has been racing at Indy for a quarter-century, and last year’s finish was easily the most memorable. But it felt more circumstantial than a trend, and the success of last year’s Xfinity race with the aero ducts and plates demanded trying it in Cup (as did the overwhelmingly positive reviews of the All-Star Race).

It’s understandable why the package won’t be used elsewhere, but IMS is the most important racetrack in the world, and NASCAR needs to put on a show that rivals the Indy 500.

The fact that the race will make its debut as the regular-season finale should have only heightened the case for using the drafting package at Indy. With so many playoff points positions potentially up for grabs, a repeat of the quasi-pack racing in the All-Star Race would have been a welcome sight in enhancing the dramatics.

There are only two years left in NASCAR’s sanctioning deal with Indy, and the decision to punt on the aero package reduces the chances of the Sept. 9 race delivering the needed narrative change that would help in securing a long-term future.


A few other stray musings from a Sonoma race whose 10.5-second margin of victory belied the fact that it still felt thrilling (a caution flag in the last 20 laps would have turned Pearn’s strategy upside down, after all):

–Finishing eight spots behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wasn’t ideal, but Trevor Bayne made a mostly respectable return to the No. 6 Ford after a five-race absence (he was the highest qualifier for Roush Fenway Racing last weekend). Bayne almost certainly isn’t returning to Roush next year, but he still has much to play for, especially if he can shop the AdvoCare sponsorship to his next employer (whether it’s the Cup or Xfinity series).

–So much has been made of the deficiencies of Chevrolet teams and the new Camaro, competitive developments involving the Ford lineup have gone overlooked. Sonoma’s finishing order reaffirmed a clear hierarchy for the Blue Oval: It’s Stewart-Haas Racing first in class, then Team Penske and Roush.

Good on him taking heat for missing a shift, but AJ Allmendinger didn’t deserve all the blame after his team inexplicably pitted off sequence from the fastest cars, playing for stage points instead of the playoffs (a win is the No. 47 Chevrolet’s only option, and Sonoma is one of two tracks Allmendinger is most likely to get it). If he made an uncharacteristic mistake while trying to scramble toward the front, it was understandable under the circumstances.

The number of winners through 16 races indicate there seemingly is less parity in NASCAR’s premier series than at any point in 40 years, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Familiar faces at the front don’t diminish plotlines so long as some measure of equality is retained among contenders. Sonoma proved that … and if an underdog sneaks into the picture, it just makes it that much more compelling of a story.

Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson to pursue $100K bounty in Truck Series

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The $100,000 bounty on Kyle Busch has its first contenders.

Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson each confirmed Thursday evening on Twitter that they’ll take a shot at the bounty placed by Kevin Harvick and Marcus Lemonis last week.

Elliott will compete in the March 14 Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the May 30 race at Kansas Speedway with GMS Racing. Larson will compete with GMS Racing in the March 20 event at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Elliott will be sponsored by Hooters for the Atlanta race.

The declarations by the two drivers came the same day that Busch said he didn’t believe any full-time Cup Series drivers would go after the bounty.

Elliott has 12 career Truck Series starts. His last two, at Atlanta and Martinsville in 2017, came with GMS Racing. Elliott won the Martinsville race. Busch was not in that race.

“Once the word got out about the challenge, we were able to put this together with Mike Beam at GMS in just a couple of days,” Elliott said in a press release. “Atlanta is one of my favorite tracks, so I’m really looking forward to getting back into a GMS truck there with Hooters on the truck and make a run for a win.”

Larson has 13 career starts and his last three, including a win at Eldora and top five at Homestead in 2016, came with GMS Racing.

“When I heard about the $100,000 bounty I wanted in!” Larson said in a press release. “I’m thankful for GMS and Chevy giving me this opportunity, Homestead is one of my favorite tracks so looking for to the challenge!”

There’s a potential third bounty hunter waiting in the wings.

Not long after Larson’s announcement, Denny Hamlin, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, tweeted that he’s acquired the funding to field a ride. There’s just one hangup, and it’s Kyle Busch Motorsports:

The $100,000 bounty against Busch was proposed by Harvick and Lemonis, CEO of Gander RV & Outdoors, last week. It will go to any full-time Cup Series driver who beats Busch in any of his remaining four Truck Series starts this year. Busch has won the last seven Truck Series races he’s entered.

If Elliott or no other Cup driver beats Busch in those four races, the bounty will go to the Bundle of Joy Fund, the organization founded by Kyle and Samantha Busch that helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.

“We are blessed with this opportunity. To have an owner that is up for the challenge and a manufacturer that will support the extra effort necessary is really special,” said Mike Beam, President of GMS Racing, in a press release. “It’s great to have these two talented young men back behind the wheel for us and to have the extra attention on the Truck series is great.”

Kyle Busch: $100K Truck Series bounty is a losing proposition

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Kyle Busch doesn’t believe any full-time Cup Series driver will attempt to claim the $100,000 bounty placed on him last week by Kevin Harvick and Marcus Lemonis.

Harvick and Lemonis, the CEO of Truck Series sponsor Gander RV & Outdoors, said they’d award that bounty to any full-time Cup Series driver who is able to beat Busch in any of his four remaining Truck Series starts this year.

Busch, who has won the last seven Truck races he’s entered, sees the challenge as a losing investment, especially if someone attempted it in one of Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Toyotas.

Thursday on the Barstool Sports’ “Rubbin’ is Racing” podcast, Busch said it costs $140,000 to rent one of his Trucks for a race.

“Right off the bat (it’s a losing proposition),” Busch said. “It’s not going to happen. Nobody is going to pay the 140 grand to rent a truck, whether it’s from me or from somebody else. (Show co-host Clint) Bowyer didn’t tell you the fact he can’t even rent a truck from me because I’m a Toyota team and he drives for a Ford team. So he has to go find a Ford truck in order to drive. So there’s those complications that fit into all of this, too.”

Denny Hamlin, Busch’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, expressed his interest in the bounty, as well Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, who said he was “working on” a deal.

After his win last Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Busch’s four remaining Truck Series starts are:

March 14 at Atlanta Motor Speedway

March 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway

March 27 at Texas Motor Speedway

May 30 at Kansas Speedway.

If no one beats Busch, the bounty will go to the Bundle of Joy Fund, the organization founded by Kyle and Samantha Busch that helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America’s MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Marty Snider hosts and is joined by Kyle Petty, Steve Letarte and Nate Ryan.

James Hinchliffe will call into the show to discuss his new role as an analyst for NBC’s coverage of IndyCar, Indy Lights, IMSA and NASCAR.

You can call into the show via 844-NASCAR-NBC or submit your questions/comments via Twitter using #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online 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.

Auto Club Speedway’s old surface provides ‘moving target’ for drivers

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Auto Club Speedway has a lot of character.

It’s a character that comes from the 2-mile track’s racing surface being among the oldest on the NASCAR circuit.

The surface hasn’t been repaved since the track first opened in 1997. That’s the same year that the surface for Atlanta Motor Speedway was last resurfaced (a planned repave was put on hold indefinitely in 2017 after outcry from drivers).

In the 23 years since, races at the track in Fontana, California, have turned into producers of multi-groove spectacles (especially on restarts) that come at the cost of high levels of tire wear.

The aged surface provides a “moving target” to drivers throughout the race weekend, according to Tyler Reddick.

“During the start of the weekend, you have to watch for the seams since it’s so slick out there,” the rookie Cup driver said in a media release. “Normally, the Xfinity cars are the first ones on the track, so I’m normally very careful. Now that I’m in the Cup Series, it may be a little different. I think this weekend will be fairly similar to Las Vegas where we started out running wide open, and I’ll have to run like that until the handling starts to go away in our No. 8 I Am Second Chevrolet (and) you have to start lifting. Then it’ll be important to assess why the handling is changing and how to adjust our car correctly to battle that.”

Cup and Xfinity teams only visit Auto Club Speedway once a year and this will be the second year they’ll do so with the high downforce aero package.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones believes Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox) will be a “different race” from the one seen last year.

“Going into Fontana last year, no one really knew what we needed car-wise, balance-wise and this year we have a whole notebook to look back on to try to get better,” Jones, who finished 19th in last year’s race, said in a media release.

“I think there will be a lot more lifting, the cars will be faster. Everybody has just gotten their cars better and more efficient and faster on the straightaways and that makes for more lifting in the corners. It will probably be a little different race, but Fontana is always a good show.”

But that show depends on where a driver chooses to run around the track.

Racing along the top of the track compared to running in the bottom lane proves for “two completely different types of racing” according to defending race winner Kyle Busch.

“You can run from the top to the bottom but, when you run the bottom, you really feel like you’re puttering around the racetrack,” Busch said in a media release. “You feel like you aren’t making up any time on the bottom. But when you are running the top groove, you feel like you’re getting the job done. The guys who run the bottom have a little bit more patience and handle it better than the guys who are on the gas on top.”

When it comes to how rough the track is, Matt DiBenedetto cites how bumpy Turns 3 and 4 are, but said in a media release that traversing the “back straightaway is like going over jumps.”

But just like with the old surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway, there are those who never want to see Auto Club’s surface actually improve.

“I did an appearance at Auto Club Speedway not too long ago and I told the track officials, ‘Whatever you do, don’t repave it!'” Austin Dillon said in a media release. “Or, wait to repave it until you can figure out how to make an asphalt that is very similar to what is on the track now.”

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