SONOMA, Calif. — When NASCAR drivers and crew chiefs say races are won and lost on pit road, they don’t mean anything like what happened Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.
It had nothing to do with performance. Just some acting skills.
Act I: With 37 laps remaining, the Martin Truex Jr. crew stood with tires in hand on pit wall as if it planned for Truex to come in for what would be the final scheduled green-flag pit stop. Truex was told to pit. For all that Truex knew, he was going to pit.
Act II: When leader Kevin Harvick entered pit road, Truex was told by Furniture Row Racing crew chief Cole Pearn to stay out. Truex pitted seven laps later.
Act III: With the race going green the rest of the way, Truex won the Toyota/Save Mart 350 by more than 10 seconds thanks to having fresher tires for the final 30 laps of the event.
“We’re in California,” Truex quipped. “We went to acting school this week. They were in L.A. for a couple of days on the off-weekend, learning how to do screenplays and stuff. … Our guys are slick, man.”
The acting was so good, even Truex was a little confused at first because just a lap before the acting began, the team had told him to pit nine laps later. But Truex and Pearn have a solid relationship.
“I never question him when he’s calling races — it’s just yes or no answers from me,” Truex said. “He told me to pit, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to pit.’ And then he said, ‘Don’t pit.’ So I’m like, ‘Fine, I’m just going to stay out.'”
Epilogue: Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers said he had preached to himself for two days not to just react to the strategy of others, but he reacted. Pitting at the same time he did Sunday had helped Harvick win last year’s race at Sonoma, but the team felt that would work only that day because they had the second-best car behind Truex.
“What we did last time won us the race, but when we got done with the race, we didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do,” Childers said. “We kind of told ourselves going into the race that we’re going to do it differently — and I don’t know.
“We just needed to worry about ourselves and not worry about what other people are doing.”
Harvick was not surprised at all to be called to the pits with 37 laps left. Like Truex, he lets his crew chief determine the strategy.
“I didn’t know what the plan was,” Harvick said. “If there was a plan, you tell me.”
With the brakes going away on long runs, Harvick said Childers shouldn’t have felt bad over the call.
As far as the Truex team’s acting skills, Harvick didn’t seem all that impressed with them as much as he was with the solid performance by their car and Truex behind the wheel.
“Not really [impressed by the fake],” Harvick said. “A lot of time, it’s still going to be better to run your race based upon what you think is right and what you think is wrong.
“I just drive as fast as I can go. Those guys [on my crew], we’ve won a lot of races and done a lot of things right. He shouldn’t beat himself over a pit crew because I think our car was off more than one call.”
After Truex came in so many laps after Harvick, Childers had Harvick return to pit road in order to be in position to have fresher tires if a caution came out. Harvick also had two loose lug nuts before that additional pit stop, which would have resulted in a one-race suspension for Childers if the team did not pit again.
“Ones like this hurt a little bit,” Childers said. “But it’s over. It’s all good. I thought the 78 [of Truex] had the best car and we won the race and this year we had the best car and they won the race. We’re square now.”
They’re somewhat square. Harvick has won five races this year. Truex has now won three.
“We still need to beat them a few more times,” Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser said. “This place can break your heart.
“You show up with the fastest equipment, and we both think we have the best driver, and today we won and they lost.”
So what’s the next act? There is still room for Furniture Row Racing to step up its acting game.
The one thing it didn’t do Sunday was have a code word. Teams are known to use code words to try to throw off their competition. Since the team never planned on pitting, it could have easily just had a code word for Truex to stay out.
“No codes,” Truex said. “It’s a recipe for disaster — we’ve seen it before when guys have codes and they call it out, and the guy goes, ‘What the hell, I thought it was the other way.’
“We tell each other what’s going on and play off that. Today, it was obviously a little bit different. They had some insight I didn’t know about and played off of that.”