Martin Truex Jr. reflects on ‘end of an era’ for Furniture Row Racing

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As NASCAR marked the end of the Cup season Thursday with the Awards banquet in Las Vegas, it also marked the official end for Furniture Row Racing, which Martin Truex Jr. affectionately called “a special team, a special time.”

Hours after crew chief Cole Pearn tweeted a photo of the team’s Denver, Colorado, shop on his last day there, Truex graced the banquet stage for the last time as driver of the team’s No. 78 Toyota.

A year after being recognized as the series champion, Truex gave his speech as the second-place finisher.

Afterward, Truex reflected on the “end of an era” for the team, which he joined in 2014 and won 17 races with.

“I’m really proud of the effort,” Truex told reporters. “You never know if the next chapter will be as successful as the last one. Just thankful for all the people around me and for (owner) Barney (Visser) and what he gave us, what he allowed us all to do. It was a special time. Hopefully, we can continue that success. But nothing’s guaranteed.”

Truex sad that he was “sad” he placed second to Joey Logano in the standings, but said it was important to get the chance to acknowledge all that Visser did for Truex and the team one last time on the banquet stage.

“I think it’s special, an important time to be able to get up there and say those things,” Truex said. “Just really pass on the word for the team and represent the team like that so all our fans can see it. I was glad he was here. He wasn’t here last year (due to recovering from surgery after a heart attack). I wish he was here last year, not this year to be honest. … It’s hard. You get two to three minutes to say a few things. I’ll never be able to tell him or express just how much he means to me, what he’s done and what the last five years mean to me and the things he’s done for my career. Sad times for all of us.

“I know Cole’s in a tough spot. He’s getting ready to move and he’s sad because today’s his last day at the shop. The cars are lined up and getting ready to be shipped off. End of an era for sure, but we had a hell of good run. Came close to being a storybook ending.”

A week from now, Pearn will be working full-time as crew chief on Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota, which Truex will drive.

Truex said he’s not concerned about the change in dynamics for him and Pearn as they transition to JGR after years spent out in Denver as part of a technical alliance with JGR.

“Especially with Cole leading the charge,” Truex said. “I know he can get the best out of everybody. That was really the key to our success. Him figuring out how to get most out of everyone, put the right people in the right places. It’s going to be hard to duplicate the cast of characters we had, there’s no question. If anyone can do it, it’s him.”

Truex said “there’s no reason for us to change” how they work and race in their new place of work.

“I think … the last couple of seasons we really played a lot of what they were doing and tried to stay on the same page as them,” Truex said of JGR. “As they were updating things and coming up with new ideas and new cars and all that stuff, we kind of stayed on the same page and took it our one little step further out there at Colorado. I think the mad scientist part of Cole is still there and he’ll still be a driving force in making those late changes. … It’s going to be new territory.”

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Friday 5: Turnaround in 2018 has Aric Almirola looking ahead to 2019

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Aric Almirola‘s performance this season at Stewart-Haas Racing provided validation to a driver who had not raced in the best Cup equipment before 2018.

Almirola improved 24 spots from last year to finish a career-high fifth in the points, the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in Cup since the elimination format debuted in 2014. 

Part of the reason for Almirola’s jump was because he missed seven races last year after being injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and finishing 29th in points for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola also showed what he could do in his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“For me, there was always some amount of self-doubt, how much am I a contributor to the performance not being where I want it to be,” Almirola said this week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “Sometimes you have to take that long, hard look in the mirror. I think for me … with my future and career being uncertain, one thing I was really hopeful for was that I would get an opportunity in a really good car to be able to know, hey, is it me or not? If I get that opportunity, can I make the most of it? Can I compete?

“I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me that I was able to get that opportunity. Some people never get that opportunity. But I was able to get that opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. I’ve got the best equipment in the garage area, and I was able to go out and compete. I ran up front and won a race and finished in the top five in points. It was a great year for me personally.”

Almirola nearly won in his first race with SHR this season. He led the Daytona 500 on the last lap before contact from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall and Dillon to the victory.

Almirola was in position to win at Dover when a caution for teammate Clint Bowyer came out in the final laps. Almirola pitted and then wrecked on the restart. Almirola won at Talladega when he passed teammate Kurt Busch after Busch ran out of fuel on the final lap.

“Now that we’ve got a year under our belt, and I feel like we achieved quite a bit, we can really focus in on our weaknesses and where we didn’t perform at our best and try to make that better. We can circle back to some of the tracks we ran really well at and figure out what we need to do to capitalize on some of those races where we felt like we could have won and didn’t do it. It’s very reasonable to have higher expectations going into next year.”

2. Not going anywhere

For those who wondered — and there were some whispers in Miami — Brad Keselowski will be back with Team Penske for the 2019 season.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Keselowski said Wednesday in Las Vegas of questions at the end of the season that he might retire. “As far as I’m aware (all is good). I will be at Team Penske driving the No. 2 car this year to the best of my knowledge. I’m under contract to do so.”

Recall that Keselowski was outspoken in June about the package that was used in the All-Star Race and warned then that “if we overdose on that particular form of racing, it will have … a long-term negative effect.”

Keselowski suggested in June that fewer talented drivers would come to NASCAR over time if the All-Star package became the primary one. NASCAR adopted a package for 2019 similar to what was used in the All-Star Race but added more horsepower than was used in that race.

One change for Keselowski is that he’ll have a new spotter. Joey Meier announced Nov. 19 that he would not be spotting for Keselowski in 2019, saying he had “been told my time as the 2 Car spotter has come to the checkered flag.” Keselowski said that a new hire hasn’t been made yet.

3. Offseason plans

What does a racer do when the season ends? Race, of course. At least that is what Alex Bowman will do.

He’ll compete in a midget at the Gateway Dirt Nationals today and Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team before they moved to Los Angeles.

Bowman also plans to run a midget at the Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget event Dec. 15 in the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, Illinois in preparation for the Chili Bowl in January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also has entered a midget for C.J. Leary for the Chili Bowl, which will be Jan. 14-19.

Not every driver will race in the next few weeks.

Ryan Blaney says he’ll leave Saturday for Hawaii. It’s his first trip there.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but the group I was with wanted to go,” he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I would like to go somewhere other than America to try to change up the culture, but I think that’s enough of a culture change in Hawaii to experience new things.”

He also plans to do some snowboarding before being home in January when his sister gives birth to her child.

Erik Jones said he’ll do some ice fishing – “go sit out in the cold and look at a hole in the ice, it’s just relaxing for me.” He said he plans to spend time with family in Michigan enjoying the holidays.

Denny Hamlin said he’ll go to St. Barts for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. “Just going down there for some vacation time in the next few weeks and after that just spend some time at home relaxing.”

Austin Dillon said he expects to be in a deer stand for some time before Christmas.

4. ‘Exciting’ move

Kyle Larson calls the pairing of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and the World of Outlaws in a doubleheader at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track in February “exciting” but he says a key will be track preparation.

When the K&N Pro Series West raced at the Vegas Dirt Track in September, the conditions were so dusty that it impacted the racing and viewing for fans.

“I think for them to both be able to showcase how cool the event is, the track needs to be right, the way it is prepped needs to be right,” Larson said this week. “That’s the only thing I”m nervous about, judging how the (K&N West) race went a few months ago.

“I just hope that the track is good so fans can get the opportunity to see some good racing in a few different series.”

5. Together again

Among those joining Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn in moving to Joe Gibbs Racing will be car chief Blake Harris and an engineer, Truex said in Las Vegas.

Having Pearn in the JGR shop should prove beneficial for all, Kyle Busch said.

“Adam (Stevens’) and Cole’s offices will be right next door to one another instead of being on a chat all the time,” Busch said of his crew chief and Pearn.

Busch likened Truex and Pearn helping the organization as much as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth did. Joe Gibbs Racing won 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 when both Edwards and Kenseth were there. 

Silly Season sees third rookie join Cup ranks in 2019

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Front Row Motorsports’ announcement that it will expand to three cars and add Matt Tifft increases the rookie field for the 2019 Cup season.

Tifft will be in a Cup rookie class with Ryan Preece and Daniel Hemric. That’s already larger than last season’s rookie class, which featured only William Byron and Bubba Wallace (Byron won rookie of the year honors).

Tifft’s signing is just one of many changes that will take place for the 2019 season.

Here’s a look at where things stand in Silly Season:

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2019

No. 6: Ryan Newman joins Roush Fenway Racing for next season (announcement made Sept. 22)

No. 13: Ty Dillon said he will remain at Germain Racing for the 2019 season (announcement made Sept. 24)

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn move to Joe Gibbs Racing from the defunct Furniture Row Racing team (announcement made Nov. 7)

No. 31: Daniel Hemric replaces Ryan Newman at Richard Childress Racing for 2019. (announcement made Sept. 28)

No. 36: Matt Tifft joins Front Row Motorsports in a third car for the 2019 season (announcement made Nov. 27)

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will remain with Richard Petty Motorsports through the 2020 season (announcement made July 28)

No. 47: Ryan Preece replaces AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing beginning next season (announcement made Sept. 28)

No. 95: Matt DiBenedetto moves to Leavine Family Racing for 2019. Leavine Family Racing also switches to Toyota beginning next year (announcement made Oct. 10)

CUP RIDES NOT YET ANNOUNCED FOR 2019

No. 1: Jamie McMurray will not drive this car next season. He has yet to decide if he will drive for Chip Ganassi Racing in the 2019 Daytona 500 and then move to a management position with the team. He said Nov. 16 he had yet to decide if to do that or some other racing.

No. 32: Go Fas Racing is looking for a driver after Matt DiBenedetto announced Sept. 7 that he would not return to the team after this season.

No. 41: Kurt Busch‘s one-year deal with Stewart-Haas Racing ended after the season. Reports have him headed to the No. 1 car in 2019. 

DRIVERS WITHOUT ANNOUNCED PLANS FOR 2019

AJ Allmendinger: He told NBC Sports on Nov. 17 that he didn’t have any races for 2019 lined up at the time.

Trevor Bayne: 2011 Daytona 500 winner is looking for a ride after the Sept. 12 announcement that he won’t return to Roush Fenway Racing in 2019. He told NBC Sports on Sept. 14 that he has been calling car owners looking for a ride and would look at any of NASCAR’s top three national series. 

Kurt Busch: The 2004 Cup champion has yet to announce his 2019 plans.

Jamie McMurray: Has yet to announce what he’ll do in 2019 but it won’t be a full-time ride in the No. 1 car at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Daniel Suarez: With Martin Truex Jr. taking over the No. 19 in 2019, Suarez is looking for a ride. He said Sept. 21 that “we’re talking to a lot of people.” Suarez is the favorite for the No. 41 ride.

CREW CHIEF CHANGES

No. 3: Danny Stockman replaces Justin Alexander as Austin Dillon‘s crew chief in 2019 (move confirmed Nov. 26)

No. 11: Mike Wheeler will not return as Denny Hamlin‘s crew chief for 2019 (announcement made Nov. 16)

No. 24: Chad Knaus replaces Darian Grubb as William Byron’s crew chief in 2019 (announcement made Oct. 10)

No. 48: Kevin Meendering replaces Chad Knaus as Jimmie Johnson‘s crew chief in 2019 (announcement made Oct. 10)

No. 95: Mike Wheeler joins the team and replaces Jon Leonard, who moved back to Richard Childress Racing to be an engineer on Austin Dillon’s team.

XFINITY SERIES

ANNOUNCED CHANGES FOR 2019

No. 1: Noah Gragson replaces Elliott Sadler at JR Motorsports for 2019 season (announcement made Sept. 25).

No. 42: Chip Ganassi Racing signs Ross Chastain to drive the No. 42 full-time for 2019 (announcement made Nov. 9).

No. 98: Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to drive the team’s second Xfinity car and be a teammate to Cole Custer (announcement made Nov. 27).

RCR: Tyler Reddick moves from JR Motorsports to RCR for the 2019 season. Reddick’s car number, sponsor and crew chief will be announced later. (announcement made Oct. 31).

Look back at 2018 season through photos

Photo: Dustin Long
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With the completion of the season, I often go back and look at the photos I’ve taken on my phone and reflect upon the special pictures.

Here are 10 photos I took that stood out to me as I looked back upon the 2018 season.

 

For those who question if Paul Menard smiles. He does. Here he is doing an interview with NBC Sports during media day in January

 

Clint Bowyer with son Cash in the media center after Bowyer ended a 190-race winless streak by winning that event in March.

 

This is among my favorite pictures just for the girl’s reaction at getting Kyle Busch‘s autograph as he headed to the drivers meeting at Bristol in April. Busch would go on to win that race.

 

Michael Riggs, shock specialist for Bubba Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports team, sets the scales for the team at Bristol in August. Another one of my favorites in how it shows the work of a crew member that most people don’t see.

 

NASCAR Hall of Famer Leonard Wood sits on the pit wall during the Southern 500 as William Byron races by in a Jeff Gordon Rainbow Warriors paint scheme. So much history in this picture.

 

Garrett Smithley hugs Ross Chastain in Victory Lane after Chastain won the Las Vegas Xfinity race in September for Chip Ganassi Racing.

 

Jimmie Johnson played a joke on Martin Truex Jr.’s team at Dover, a week after Johnson’s contact spun Truex in the final chicane and cost Truex the win at the Charlotte Roval.

Johnson was allowed in the Dover garage after it closed and put about a dozen children’s bikes on the lift gate of Furniture Row Racing’s hauler.

“Cole (Pearn) made a comment to me at the end of last weekend when we were leaving the track all in good fun,” Johnson said at Dover. “I saw some of his crew guys when I came back from a bike ride on Friday, and one of them grabbed my bike and said, ‘Oh, hey, is this my nice, new bike that Cole was talking about?’ ”

“So, as I shared that story with my team, the ideas started flowing, and we … sent my bus driver off to Walmart where they had some pre-assembled bikes and had some fun with it.”

 

Aric Almirola after he failed to win the Dover playoff race in October. Not much else needs to be said.

 

David Gilliland, who won the pole for the Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway in October, holds a puppy his family adopted earlier that week.

 

Ray Gallahan, fueler for Joey Logano‘s team, watches the team spray each other with champagne after Logano won the championship. It was Gallahan’s last race going over the wall. He sat back to take it all in and to avoid be “sticky” from the champagne.

Friday 5: Tony Gibson seeks to win Cup title four months after hospitalization

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Four months after suffering what he called a “mini-stroke” that impacted his vision and hearing, Tony Gibson could help lead Kevin Harvick to the Cup title.

The 54-year-old Gibson, as affable and easygoing as anyone who has worked a lifetime in the Cup garage, will be on Harvick’s pit box Sunday in Miami as crew chief Rodney Childers sits out his last race of a two-race suspension.

Gibson will be there after spending more than a month off from work recovering from his health issues.

“I was actually just driving home from work (July 6) and just had a real, I just could not get my brain to function with my hands and my feet, and I could not drive any further and knew something was wrong,” Gibson said. “Just wasn’t sure, and ended up going to the emergency room and put me in for observation that night, and then about one in the morning they came back and they had done several scans and told me I had a blood clot in my vertebral artery.”

Gibson said he was hospitalized more than a week before he was released. The blood clot started to dissolve but then it caused what Gibson called a mini-stroke, leaving him without 85 percent of his hearing in his left ear and cost him most of the function of his left eye.”

He went through therapy. He continues to see doctors. Gibson had an appointment with his neurologist today that had to be canceled since he’s in Miami.

“I was very lucky, and I don’t take that for granted,” Gibson said. “There’s a lot of people out there that are way worse than me, so it’s just something that I’ll overcome and I’ll get used to it and go on.”

When Stewart-Haas Racing asked him to fill in for Childers after his penalty for an infraction discovered in Harvick’s winning car at Texas, Gibson had to consult his doctors to make sure it was OK for him to fly.

“They said I’m probably safer than anybody on the plane as far as blood clots with the medicines that I’m on,” Gibson said.

“Other than having to get up and walk around on the plane and do my normal stuff that I do, they were pretty satisfied with me doing it, and if all possible, I was going. There was no way I was going to let those guys down.”

Gibson was a natural choice to fill in for Childers. Gibson has faced championship pressure before. The Daytona Beach native was on Alan Kulwicki’s crew when Kulwicki won the 1992 title. Gibson was the car chief for Jeff Gordon’s team when Gordon won crowns in 1998 and 2001. Gibson was a crew chief from 2003-17, winning the 2017 Daytona 500 with Kurt Busch.

But Gibson decided in December he wanted off the road, writing on social media “Traveling 4 days a week for 31 years can take a toll on you.”

He took a role in the shop, coordinating the work on the cars for all four Cup teams as production manager. That kept him at home with family and gave him plenty of time for fishing.

Then again, it’s hard to keep racers from the track. That’s where he’ll be Sunday.

2. Got his back

For as much success as Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have had in their time together since 2014, their winning percentage (12.5 percent) is just slightly better than what Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn have accumulated (12.0 percent) since 2015.

So how have Truex and Pearn achieved such success? It started when Pearn was Truex’s engineer at Furniture Row Racing in 2014 when the team struggled.

“Our cars were not very good,” Truex said. “We had some major issues that took a while to figure out. But he never pointed the finger at me.  He did a lot of the setups and a lot of the work on the cars, and he was the one writing down the notes and taking all my feedback.

“As far as I know, and as far as I could tell, he believed in me 100 percent in that time when we were running 20th. I felt like (he) always had my back and was always willing to go the extra mile to figure it out. Once we did, obviously, you’ve seen what happened. But that just gave me the trust and the confidence that he had my back and he was my guy, and we figured it out together.”

3. Success of failure?

Kyle Busch has tied his career-high for wins in a season with eight, already has a career-high in top fives (21) and top 10s (27) and has the best average finish (8.4) of his career.

But can such a year be successful if it doesn’t come with a championship?

 “I would say it’s certainly been a successful year, but I don’t think it would be truly successful without being able to bring home that championship,” Busch said.

Busch was asked if it would be more disappointing to lose the title this year after the season he’s had.

“I guess it depends on who you lose it to,” he said. “Obviously, Harvick’s done a phenomenal job. Those guys and that group have been so good all season long, even in the late stages of last year. You lose it to him, and it’s like, yeah, okay, I can see why they got it. In all honesty, I feel like we’ve been right there toe-to-toe with them. He wins a week, I can win a week, he wins a week, I can win a week. Truex wins a week, I win a week, he wins a week. That’s kind of the way this season’s gone.”

Busch was asked if it would be more disappointing to lose the title to Logano since Logano hasn’t had the overall season Harvick and Truex have had.

“I would agree with that statement,” Busch said. “(Logano has) been there. He’s been consistent. He’s been good. He hasn’t necessarily performed to the level of the big three, and that’s no shake on them at all. 

“It’s just the fact of the matter. So if he wins the title over the rest of us, then that would certainly be a little bit more disappointing.”

4. Back in time

The past four years, the driver who won the championship won the race. If that trend continues this year, then Joey Logano would need to win on a 1.5-mile track for the first time in 2015 at Kansas in the playoffs – a span of 34 races on 1.5-mile tracks.

Logano is encouraged with how his team has performed in recent races on 1.5-mile tracks.

“I think we were really good at Kansas this year,” Logano said of a race he led 100 of 267 laps before placing eighth. “We may not have won the race, but we sat on the pole, led most laps that race.

  “We ran pretty well (at Homestead-Miami Speedway last year), as well. I feel confident in that. I feel confident we’re going to make a lot of pit stops because the tires wear out really quick. I have so much confidence in this pit crew to do their job that we’re going to go out there and do our things, have fun with that.”

5. A special celebration

If Kevin Harvick wins the championship Sunday, 6-year-old son Keelan has a special celebration he wants to do.

Harvick said Keelan asked him Wednesday night that if he won the championship could they do anything they wanted.

“If you win the championship, you can do pretty much anything you want,” Harvick told his son.

“He’s like, We’re going to climb the fence, dad. I said, Okay, I’ll watch. You climb the fence.”