Monday, July 10, 2017

Right Sides Only: Notes from the Quaker State 400 Winning Crew Chief, Cole Pearn

by Stacey Owens

Sure, stage-racing is new and different. Yes, it shakes up the points standings from week-to-week. And no, not every team is good at it yet. One team that is good -- yes, one might even say phenomenal -- is the No. 78 team.

Martin Truex Jr. has three times more stages wins than any other driver. With 13 stage wins before taking the checkers on Saturday night, he is poised to enter the playoffs with at least 30 playoff points. His win at Kentucky Speedway marked the second time this season he's won the first two stages and the race itself. Crew chief Cole Pearn says it's all about qualifying.

"I think a lot of it comes down to qualifying well. I think if you look at our qualifying averages, we've been really stout that way. Definitely our best as a team. I think having good track position to start the race is a huge, important part of it, and you're able to maintain that, it makes it a lot easier to score stage points for sure," Pearn said.

"We were fortunate to have a good long-run car tonight. Early in the race, I thought the 18 was maybe a little better on the short run. It just took a long time for him to wear down a bit and we were able to keep digging. I don't know that there's any strategy to it or not. I think there's definitely a few of those stage wins we've had to make strategy calls to get, but tonight that second stage was sketchy at times with staying out, at times we were up to five laps short and you didn't know if you were going to make it. Having the cautions we did, Martin did a good job saving fuel and we were able to make it there. So I think for us that was probably the most difficult stage for sure," Pearn explained.



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How does Pearn feel about the points advantage the No. 78 team will have as the playoffs begin in Chicago in mid-September?

"Yeah, I don't think you can have enough," he said. "I mean, the best way to get a lead is to keep winning them and not let other people win them. I think when we blew a motor at Talladega last fall and took us out of the Chase and we were having a great season, when this format came about, it was definitely like, all right, this is an opportunity for us to give ourselves a window to have a bad race in the Chase and still be able to make it through.
              
"The more we have, the better it is, especially when you get down to that round of eight. You're going to have eight guys that are probably pretty good playoff point wise, so it's going to not necessarily be easy. That gap may seem big to the guys at 16th, but when you get down around eighth that gap is not going to be as big. The more we can get, the better, I think."

The entire No. 78 team has worked incredibly well together and has proven themselves on intermediate tracks this season. As the playoffs approach -- a 10-race series featuring several 1.5-mile tracks -- how does Pearn feel about the team's chances on those tracks?

"I think it always feels like the Chase the second time around is a lot different," Pearn said. "I look at our performances last year, I always feel like we do really well in the early section of the mile-and-a-halfs and then maybe not quite as good come Chase time. I don't know why that is, but it's definitely something we're focused on and will continue to work to get better at. I don't think any of those are guaranteed. This is a tough competition in this garage, and I'm sure it's not going to be this -- I don't want to say easy, but this far apart maybe when we come Chase time."

Because the garage is full of such talent, Pearn wasn't confident that he'd given his driver a car that could win the race.

"I really thought early on, I was like, um, I don't know. I thought we were almost a third-place car the first couple runs of the race, and then it seems as the night came and the track cooled down a bit, we got stronger. Really at that point you're just -- you're not trying to overthink it. You're trying to make sure you stick to the plan, and we were able to do that. I mean, he did a great job.
              
"We've lost a lot of fuel-mileage situations in the last few years, and I think that's a product of being in contention to win races. It makes you better at winning races because when you lose them in a lot of different forms, you focus on that and get better. And we were able to be good in a fuel-mileage situation, which I think is a huge boost for his confidence and for our team," Pearn said.

As most fans know, the Furniture Row Racing team is based in Colorado, nowhere near home base for other teams. Even though the team has an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, which builds all their chassis, Pearn and his team at the shop are at least a day behind in their prep.

"It's tough in Colorado. I mean, we've got to load a day early most weeks, so we work closely with JGR, and obviously they've got a day ahead of us. So our Monday and Tuesdays are pretty much hair on fire most weeks, so it's amazing sometimes ... we make it to the racetrack, but when we do, we're generally good.

"Even this week, just having Daytona cars, had to leave early, and then we just had a little bit more time on the Kentucky cars, and you just feel like ... we're not missing anything, and you feel like you're in good shape," Pearn said.

"It's a challenge being out there that far, especially these last few weeks with road course cars and speedway cars and then back to a mile-and-a-half. It's a lot of different cars going through the system, especially with two teams now. It's just double the work, and really it falls on a lot of our key people. So I can't speak highly enough of the effort they've had to put in. There's been a lot, a lot of long hours on our group, and just to get this win for them, it's just retribution to keep them digging," Pearn explained.

Despite those long hours, Pearn says his team still enjoys working together and finding fun in their work.

"I kind of got the personality where we just keep working. I mean, obviously those are moments you're like, wow, we've got a good thing going. But it's just fun. I mean, we beat each other up. Everybody is equal, and everybody is equal to get beat on. We just keep each other honest and make sure we're all pulling our weight. I think when you've got a whole team like that, it's just really fun," Pearn said.

It's also really fun for their fans to watch this team excel as stage-racing becomes the new on-track norm. Those fans are really in for a fun time if their favorite Colorado-based driver keeps winning stages once the playoffs begin. They may find themselves fans of a new NASCAR champion by the end of November.

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 Stacey Owens lives just outside Music City USA. She's always wanted to be a NASCAR writer, so working as a columnist and support editor for Skirts and Scuffs allows her to live that dream every single weekend.
    The sole NASCAR enthusiast in her home, she's hopeful that one of her three daughters might also harbor an appreciation for NASCAR, but it isn't looking good so far.
    This self-admitted grammar nerd also loves country music, though she can't carry a tune; Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life; and her husband who's supportive of her NASCAR obsession and tunes in with her every week... even if it's just to watch the flyover.

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