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.”
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.