Monday, November 20, 2017

Right Sides Only: Notes from the 2017 Champion Crew Chief, Cole Pearn

by Stacey Owens

Sometimes, the best answer to a question is a simple, "I don't know." In describing his emotions after winning his first championship as crew chief for the No. 78 Furniture Row team, Cole Pearn gave a simple answer.

"I don't know. Still in disbelief, I guess. I don't know, I can't believe it. Yeah, I don't know, we really tried to focus on being good once it turned nighttime, and I don't know, I was really trying there because a lot of those other guys were a little bit better during the day, and we kept pace, we weren't as good by any means, especially not on the long run, and we kept in the top 5, kept in position, and the pit crew was amazing all night, never once faltered. We just continued to adjust on it. We knew kind of when the track cooled down where we needed to be, and then, I don't know, we weren't going to beat the 18. There was no way. I knew kind of they were going to go on that one stop, so we decided to go to the two-stop strategy to try to provide opportunity to at least do something different, and we were fortunate enough to catch a caution that we didn't even need to come down, just straight speed, and really those last 30 laps, that's Martin.
            
"For anybody that doesn't believe that he's a champion, he's -- I don't know, that was one of the best drives I've seen. We didn't have the best car by any means, and he found a spot on the track to be able to make it work and outran the best car, and the best car was Kyle Busch," said Pearn.

There comes a time in every race--but especially during the final race of the season--that a crew chief knows he's done all he can do for his driver, and the outcome of the race is out of his hands. For Pearn that moment came in the closing laps after the last pit stop of the afternoon.

"I think for me I probably had more tension with like 15 to go because the 18 was coming, and I wasn't sure where we were going to find the grip to be able to beat him [Kyle Busch]. Once Martin started finding a groove that was working for him and when he started to pull away at times a little bit from him, all I did was continue to watch where we were running, continue to watch where Kyle was running and try and find the lane that was -- at least give the feedback to Martin on what lane was working the best. Really, I think that need to be attentive was a calming factor in a way. I still felt surprisingly calm and surprisingly at peace as we approached those last few laps, and I think really when we got down with a couple to go, just started thinking about everything we've been through and started to let it kind of soak in or pour in on you, I guess, in a way, and just was really in disbelief that we were able to do it," Pearn explained.

The driver/crew chief bond is special. The pair know each other well and can anticipate the other is thinking. As well as Pearn knows Truex, did he know his driver had the ability to pull out all the stops in the waning laps?

"I don't know. I continue to believe every day that his talent level, and a lot of times we get a lot of credit as a team because maybe in his career he didn't have the success he's had since we've been together. I think that bodes for us getting a lot of the praise. I really -- he's a champion. You know, I think for me, one of the most clutch wins for the year was Charlotte when we were able to win and pull that off when maybe we weren't our best, either, and I didn't know that we had another performance like that in the bag, and somehow we found it. This is by no means or strongest track by any means. We hadn't had it Kansas or at Charlotte. We'd have worn him out. But this was not an easy one for us, and really he put it on his shoulders there because we were out of ideas. We were doing everything we could, and we made the best calls we could. I can't take away from that. But at the same time, he put it on his shoulders and made it happen," Pearn explained.
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In those last few laps, Truex had a driver he certainly didn't want to see in his rearview mirror. How nerve-wracking is that for a crew chief who can't fix that situation?

"Oh, absolutely, yeah. I was worried for sure. I knew they were coming, and I knew how good they were on the long run all night, and he was starting to find his groove and find his speed. They're an unbelievable team, unbelievable competitors. The fact that Martin was able to find some speed and find a lane that was working for us, it was like, okay, well, we started to stretch it out. I just really tried to stay focused on what was working and just tried to stay focused on the task at hand. It was just eerily calm in a way. I think in a way I felt like we were probably -- high chance they were going to get us, and I think the fact when you realized that was quite possible, it allowed you to just calm down and we've got to fight tooth and nail for everything we can. I think that brought a lot of resolve and a lot of focus to what we needed to do, and I think -- I can't think of a better way to be a champion than to beat the other best team I can think of in those closing laps," Pearn said.

The team's quest for their first championship started early in the season. With the advent of stage racing, the No. 78 held a clinic for the rest of the field.

"I think early in the year, we were fortunate enough to be qualifying well and having good speed, and allowed us to win a lot of stages. I think really when the playoffs come, it's a product of everybody raising their game. There was a lot of races where maybe we weren't the best car early in races that we would have been early in the year, and I think that's kind of the difference.
           
"We had Chicago, we had a penalty, had a loose wheel; that really took us out of being able to win stages. Loudon we were going to run away with it, I think, and got crashed on the backstretch going to win the second stage there. Charlotte we sucked early in the race and really came through at the end. I think a lot of races we've faced a lot of adversity really early in races. It's maybe something that didn't happen early in the year. So I think that's just a difference in stage wins in the playoffs versus the regular season. It wasn't really any different strategy-wise, it was just kind of the way the races played out," Pearn said.  

The No. 78 team has experienced a lot of off-track heartache, so winning the championship is cathartic on many fronts. Not only has Martin Truex Jr.'s long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, been valiantly battling ovarian cancer, but Pearn lost his best friend a few months ago. Pearn talked about how the win affected him.

"You know, it's a medicine at times, I guess. I was able to overcome kind of those last couple laps -- I don't know, I've got a hard time talking about it honestly.  I wish -- I lost my best friend, and I still think about him every day and every night. I don't know, I'm not sure.  It's pretty crazy to be able to win. You know, I just can't wait to get back home and see all my friends and family and be able to share this with them," Pearn said.

Pearn isn't kidding when he talks about taking time to spend with friends and family. Most championship crew chiefs visit the media center following the Homestead finale and tell the members of the press that they have no plans to celebrate because they want to get started on the next year as soon as possible. Pearn is an exception.

"We just won a championship in NASCAR; are you kidding me? I don't really give a crap what we do next week. (Laughter.)
           
"I don't know, I mean, we're going to enjoy it. I think -- I'm 35 years old and I've raced every year of my life since I was six years old and I spent every year of my life before that going to watch my dad at the racetrack. Barney [Visser] asked me on the way to work on Tuesday how long have I been doing this, and I had to add it up, and I never would have dreamt that this would have been possible, especially growing up where I did in Canada. That's kind of unheard of to break into a predominantly Southern sport and then to do it as a team in Colorado and win a championship, definitely going to take some time for reflection on that and think about what we've accomplished before we worry about 2018," Pearn explained.

He has, indeed, earned some time to reflect on his accomplishments before he concerns himself with next season. 

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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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