HOMESTEAD, Florida – The circumstances that led to Martin Truex Jr.’s 2017 Cup Series title ultimately denied him a chance to go back-to-back.
Truex took the lead of Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway from Kyle Busch off the race’s final restart with less than 15 laps to go. But Truex was no match for Joey Logano, who blitzed past Truex with less than 12 laps to go and disappeared ahead of him to win the race and the championship.
“I was hoping clean air would be enough to keep us out front there, but [Logano] was better on the short run all day and past lap 10 or 15 we’d start coming back on them and be better than them on the long run,” Truex’s crew chief Cole Pearn said.
The short run at the end of the 2017 race was longer than it was in 2018. The race’s final restart came with 34 laps to go a year ago. Truex was the leader on that restart -- he started second to Busch Sunday night -- and kept Busch at bay over that final 30 laps.
“They were faster than us for 15-20 laps,” Truex said. “It was like the reverse scenario of last year, you know? Last year we took advantage of the short run car there at the end and [Busch] should have won the race. Tonight we should have won the race and they took advantage of the short run car.”
Pearn was confident that Truex had the speed to win the race had it gone caution-free for the final 35 laps after Truex, Logano and Harvick had pitted for fresh tires under green. Truex had passed Logano for second among the three and was closing in on Harvick, who was the race leader among those who had made (what they thought was) their final pit stop.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Pearn said. “I thought we were [catching] the 4 pretty hard there and would have got him pretty quick.”
The final caution of last year’s race was closely associated with Daniel Suarez. His No. 19 car had a tire explode on the backstretch as he drove into turns 3 and 4. Shortly after that, Kurt Busch got sideways in turn 3 and NASCAR threw a caution.
Sunday night, the final caution came as Suarez went spinning off Brad Keselowski’s bumper.
“Nineteen brought out the caution there,” Pearn said. “Nineteen brought out the caution last year that won us the championship and then this year cost us the championship, so I mean, you’ve gotta be good but you’ve gotta have luck, and at the end of the day it just didn’t quite shake out.”
The No. 19 car is the car that Truex will be driving and Pearn will be crew chiefing for in 2019. The two are joining Joe Gibbs Racing because Furniture Row Racing is shutting down.
Team co-sponsor 5-Hour Energy announced in the middle of the season that it wasn’t returning for next season. That, coupled with the rising costs of maintaining the team’s technical alliance with JGR, meant Furniture Row had to shut its doors after previously maintaining it was going to keep racing.
Furniture Row entered NASCAR in 2005 and ran its first full season in 2008. Regan Smith got FRR its first win at Darlington in 2011 but things didn’t really take off until Truex and Pearn became one of the best driver-crew chief combinations in NASCAR starting in 2015.
Truex had a dismal year in 2014, his first with the team after coming over from Michael Waltrip Racing following that team’s race manipulation scandal. Pearn became his crew chief in 2015 and Truex has won 17 races over the past four seasons along with that title.
“Well, it’s been brutal at the end here,” Furniture Row president Joe Garone said Friday. “But in the beginning, it was just so much fun -- every weekend -- for Furniture Row, it was such a linear uphill climb starting from scratch, and there’s a lot of pride that can be taken and satisfaction when you’re building a company that’s constantly growing and improving. And really it took several years before we actually had a dip, and then once we went through that dip, we were able to start climbing back up again.”
“Better equipment, better people, year after year, more money gets poured into it, but the rewards come back better, and it just -- it’s an amazing story.”
Unlike Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s farewell a year ago where a party erupted around his car on pit road following the race, the scene around Truex’s car was more subdued. Crew members stood next to it and exchanged hugs and high-fives. Truex and Pearn debriefed. The car, which had a minor run-in with Logano during the race’s final stage, got a look over.
If you didn’t know the backstory you could have just thought the disappointment on team members’ faces was from losing out on the championship. It was from far more than that. As Truex moves to a team where he’ll have a chance to compete for more championships, a Colorado-based part of recent NASCAR history is fading away.
“It sucks,” Truex said. “It sucks. It sucks. It hurts. It’s terrible. I hate it. I wish we could go on and race 10 more years together. But, we can’t.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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