HOMESTEAD, Fla. — A Canadian crew chief led a Toyota driver from New Jersey and a team based in Denver to a championship.
This certainly isn’t your father’s NASCAR.
To say that Martin Truex Jr., crew chief Cole Pearn and the rest of the Furniture Row Racing team wrote a spectacular finish to an unlikely story in winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway is to understate the fact.
The team became the first Cup organization based outside North Carolina to win the championship since Bill Elliott’s team, located in the mountains of north Georgia, scored in 1988.
They were the stars of the show virtually all season, winning eight races and often dominating in obnoxious fashion. Then Truex closed it out Sunday night by refusing to wilt under the significant pressure applied by Kyle Busch, the driver you don’t want chasing you in pursuit of a championship in the closing laps.
Now, the celebration. It will culminate Nov. 28-30 in Las Vegas as the sport honors its new champion, a smart driver who graduated from the old Busch North Series to leave behind what might have been a career working on his father’s clam boats on the Atlantic.
There are NASCAR team owners and crew chiefs who will say the 2018 season began Monday, one day after Truex finished off 2017. There are cars to build, mechanics to hire, sponsors to find, plans to make for the long season to come.
Pearn, a champion crew chief for the first time, says bologna to all that.
In past years, championship crew chiefs have said they couldn’t wait to get back to the shop to start work on the next season.
Pearn? Don’t unlock the shop doors.
“We just won a championship in NASCAR,” said Pearn, his Furniture Row T-shirt soaked in champagne. “Are you kidding me? I don’t really give a crap what we do next week.”
Truex and Pearn won eight times across a season of stress and strain. Crewman Jim Watson died of a heart attack at Kansas Speedway. Team owner Barney Visser suffered a heart attack and had surgery, missing the final two races of the year, including Sunday’s rush to glory. Pearn’s best friend died of a bacterial infection. And Truex and his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, suffered a setback — and endured another surgery — in her long fight against ovarian cancer.
If any championship deserves an extended celebration, it’s this one. And Truex promised late Sunday night that part one of the party would last long into Monday morning before he left for New York City for the annual champion’s media blitz.
In quieter moments, team members will reflect on the remarkable thing they accomplished.
It was ludicrous to imagine that a small team based in Denver could win a Cup championship in competition with the bigger, more veteran teams based in and around Charlotte. For example, Furniture Row is a team that uses team owner Visser’s furniture-hauling trucks to transport parts across the country, suspension pieces sharing space with sofas.
Because virtually every other Cup team of significance is headquartered within 50 miles of Charlotte, the top mechanics and engineers tend to live and work in that circle.
None of that mattered to Truex, Pearn and their guys. One thousand and six hundred miles from Charlotte, they became more than a race team — something closer to a close-knit family. In the end, working for a New Jersey driver and a crew chief from, of all places, Canada, they ran past and over the competition and brought a championship home to the Rockies.
“I never would have dreamt that this would have been possible, especially growing up where I did in Canada,” Pearn said. “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. I’m definitely going to take some time for reflection on that and think about what we've accomplished before we worry about 2018.”
In a sweet twist of irony, Truex, whose car number is 78, led 78 laps in winning Sunday’s finale.
The last lap he drove in a fog of emotion.
“I took the checkered flag and I was just junk,” he said. “ Like I couldn't talk, I couldn't think. I had no idea what to do. I was bawling like a little kid. It was insane, and I don't even know why. All the things I've been through flashed through my head. All the people that have got me here flashed through my head.
“There's so many things along the way that led me down this path, that got me here tonight, so many people that sacrificed things to get me here, and all those things flashed through my head. It was just more than I could handle. But it felt pretty damned good. As bad as it hurt, it felt damned good. Crazy.”
Crazy. Perhaps the best adjective for an extraordinary race day. And season.
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