Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of four stories examining why each driver could win the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. Coming Wednesday: Kyle Busch
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Martin Truex Jr. will win the 2018 championship because …
He’s the only one with Cole Pearn calling the shots atop the pit box and in the shop.
Through the season’s first 19 races, Truex Jr. and Pearn combined to win four races, compiling five poles and an average finish of 9.42 along the way. In the 16 events since, the No. 78 Toyota has neither started nor finished first, uncharacteristically averaging a finish of 12.81 … but why?
One could point to the distraction that came along with the impending closure of Furniture Row Racing for the downturn in results the second half of the season. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that didn’t play a factor, but I would go so far as to suggest this out-there theory: Pearn has been tinkering and analyzing and dialing everything in specifically for this one upcoming Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The final race in Furniture Row’s history, and owner Barney Visser’s last shot at a title.
Seven out of Truex’s eight wins in 2017 en route to his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title came on 1.5-mile tracks like Miami; he was the clear-cut favorite on them. With just one win on an intermediate track this season, it’s enough to raise an eyebrow — something was different. That kind of drop-off doesn’t just happen out of thin air, you know?
My thinking is that Pearn, the mastermind that he’s known to be, recognized early on that their intermediate program was off a tick from their pace last year and he needed to swing for the fences to compete with the Nos. 4 and 18, straight-up, in Miami. Especially after seeing the speed Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick showed on intermediates the first half of the year — they literally won every race run on them until Truex stopped that streak in July at Kentucky — some outside-the-box thinking was necessary.
By virtue of how far ahead the “Big 3” looked compared to the rest of the field in the early going, there was a better-chance-than-not that all three would be able to playoff-point their way into the Championship 4 — which basically wound up being true. Teams tend to focus on the immediate task at hand in this sport, as they should, and aiming focus in the shop months down the road is certainly be a gamble, particularly in this elimination-style playoff format.
But that Cole Pearn, he’s a gambler. A damn good one.
RELATED: Breaking down the Championship 4
And don’t get me wrong — I’m not suggesting in the least that they were throwing races away. Truex is so steady as a driver and their equipment is so good that it’s simply feasible that they took a calculated risk and pointed their focus on the longterm goal of winning a title rather than the week-to-week trophies that come along with race wins. And hey, Truex even nearly won a few of them (see: Watkins Glen, Richmond, Charlotte, Martinsville).
Sure, my theory is out there. Sure, it’s probably not true and just my far-fetched conjecture. But guess what?
Even if it isn’t the case — the two are still the best driver/crew chief pairing in the sport, come into the race as the defending title and race winner and have seen just about every situation imaginable go sideways. Yet they still find ways to come out on top.
Truex Jr. and Pearn could be hoisting another trophy come Sunday night despite how strong Busch and Harvick have been the whole season — and it might’ve been the plan all along.