Inside the first test with Martin Truex Jr. and Joe Gibbs Racing’s new No. 19 team

If the new combination of Martin Truex Jr., Cole Pearn and Joe Gibbs Racing ultimately results in a championship, let the record show their first laps together were a bit unusual.

When Truex strapped into the No. 19 Toyota for the first time Wednesday morning during a Goodyear tire test at Auto Club Speedway, he didn’t immediately drive onto the track.

Instead, Truex made laps around an empty garage so the team could calibrate a GPS system.

For eight minutes, Truex slowly circled a long, red-roofed building — over and over and over. He couldn’t help but chuckle at the strange start to his test.

“They told me to go drive around for a bit,” he said. “It was like, ‘OK, whatever, guys!’”

Truex eventually got bored and looped back to the Cup garage so he could buzz the members of his team, who were standing outside the garage stall watching the scene unfold. The crew burst into laughter as the 19 car passed by.

If there were any first-day jitters, they surely ended right then.

Martin Truex Jr. smiles after climbing into the No. 19 car for the first time. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

JGR allowed to get an inside look at the No. 19’s first test as a group, and it certainly didn’t seem like there was much of an adjustment period between the team members. That’s because much of the old Furniture Row Racing team’s road crew lives on, just in a different uniform.

It wasn’t only Truex and Pearn who joined JGR — former 78 team crewmen actually make up the majority of the new 19.

Car chief Blake Harris, engineer James Small, interior mechanic Todd Carmichael, tire specialist Tommy DiBlasi and engine tuner Gregg Huls were all at FRR, and spotter Clayton Hughes also followed Truex to JGR.

Meanwhile, aside from the hauler drivers, only three of the current road crew worked on the 19 car last year: Engineer JT Adkins, front end mechanic Dave Rudy and underneath mechanic Ryan Martin. In addition, shock specialist Drew Bible joined the 19 from Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 car.

“The core of us are from the 78, and we definitely have our little ways we like to do things,” Pearn said. “It’s funny — I’m still not used to seeing the 19 (on the door) because it’s all the same people, it’s the same sponsors (as the 78). But then you’re part of a different group. It’s got a weird feeling to it.”

Pearn started working with JGR on the 2019 roster while last season was still wrapping up, but he said many of the decisions came down to which former 78 personnel were willing to move from Colorado and continue in racing after FRR shut down.

The California tire test, despite being across the country from their new homes, was a boost for a group that otherwise might have rolled into Daytona Speedweeks still unsure of its chemistry.

Not only did the crew get to shake any winter rust when it comes to making changes to the car, but everyone got to bond as well. A team dinner Tuesday night at the Mexican restaurant El Torito following a long flight was the first real chance to get the entire group together (they went to Outback on the second night).

“Everybody gelled really early, and then getting to do this test and be on the road together before the season gets started has been really helpful,” Pearn said.

Martin Truex Jr., Cole Pearn and the No. 19 team debrief after a run during their first test session together. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

As for the test itself, nothing initially seemed abnormal.

“We’re going to run the black ones,” Pearn said, deadpan, while pointing to a large stack of Goodyears.

But it turned out to be one of the more unique tests Goodyear has conducted at a non-plate track. If the new rules package works as intended, all of the big ovals will resemble something akin to pack racing in 2019 — and everyone needed to get data about how the cars would handle around each other.

As a result, the three teams at the test (Truex, Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez’s No. 41) spent much of their time drafting together instead of doing single-car runs.

“Usually at a tire test, you’re out there by yourself all the time,” Truex said. “You go out there, you make your laps when you’re ready, you come back in, change tires. But running with other cars, you can definitely get a lot more information.”

Here’s how most of the test went for the 19 team: Truex would go out to do a run of 15-25 laps with the other drivers while Pearn ran up to the roof of the infield pit suites to watch. They’d return to the garage, where Pearn would lean into his driver’s window and say, “Whaddya got?” Truex, often animated with eyes widening as he spoke, would express his opinion of the latest changes. With no engine noise, other team members would gather behind Pearn to hear what Truex had to say.

Pearn said the biggest takeaway from the test wasn’t necessarily the newness of his team working together, but the new ways it will have to conduct business in 2019. Getting the car to work in a draft will now be more important than raw speed, so crew chiefs will have to find a balance between the two.

“It’s going to be hairy,” Pearn said. “The All-Star Race was short, and now you think you’re going to be four hours of that, basically being pretty chaotic the whole time, is going to be pretty mentally taxing. It’s going to be a lot more to deal with.”

Truex echoed that sentiment and said figuring out the rules package would be a much bigger challenge than figuring out the flow of his new team — which he believes is already in a good place.

“I feel like we’re already integrated into the JGR system and everything is going smoothly,” he said. “The question is going to be how do we make stuff better? How does that work? But with us as a group, so far everything feels like a little bit of a continuation of what we’ve been doing.”

Fans at the test asked Cole Pearn to bring their merchandise to Martin Truex Jr. for signatures. Pearn did, then jogged back to the fans after Truex signed. Pearn joked he was trying to get some “good karma.” (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

News Analysis: Daniel Suarez moves to Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 41 car

What happened: The Daniel Suarez and Stewart-Haas Racing marriage was finally made official Monday after a lengthy period of negotiation and speculation. Suarez lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing when Martin Truex Jr. moved to the 19 car following Furniture Row Racing’s shutdown. Meanwhile, SHR had an open seat in its No. 41 car after Kurt Busch and sponsor Monster left for Chip Ganassi Racing. It apparently took months to finalize the sponsorship details with Arris, but Suarez and SHR are now moving forward. Haas Automation — the machine tools company of SHR co-owner Gene Haas — was listed as the sponsor ahead of Arris, and the photo distributed in the team’s news release has Suarez in a black Haas firesuit.

Photo: HHP/Harold Hinson

What it means: A lot went on behind the scenes on the business side, from Arris leaving JGR to Suarez bringing enough sponsorship with him to get the ride. Gene Haas, who has most of the input on the No. 41 car, told NBC Sports in September about the possibility of signing Suarez: “We’ve talked to him. He brings a different group of sponsors. Like anything else, it comes down to the bottom line. How much sponsorship are we talking? How much money does SHR get? How much money does the driver get? Those are the kind of typical things that can take awhile to iron out because everybody wants everything.” Clearly, he wasn’t kidding about the “awhile” part, as it’s now less than six weeks until the Daytona 500. But that’s how business is done in NASCAR these days, as sponsorship is much more complex than companies just slapping their names on the hood.

News value (scale of 1-10): Four. Being a ride with one of the top teams in NASCAR saves it from being lower. But everyone figured this was coming for soooo long that it’s not surprising — therefore the actual “news” part is lower than average.

Three questions: Can Suarez really pull a Joey Logano and break through for wins after leaving JGR? Will Suarez finish higher or lower than Busch’s No. 1 car at Ganassi this season? Haas has said it takes $20 million to run a good Cup team without the driver salary included — so how much money were Suarez’s backers ultimately able to bring in order to secure the ride over other potential candidates?

Anaheim 1 shows promise for Yamaha’s Justin Barcia, Aaron Plessinger

Anaheim 1 is often the tone-setter for how the Supercross season will unfold, at least in terms of who is fast.

So what did we learn from Saturday night, when veteran Justin Barcia broke through for his first 450SX win in nearly six years?

It’s tempting to say “not much,” thanks to a persistent rain that created muddy conditions and made for a slick track. Riders like defending Supercross champion Jason Anderson (14th place) and 2018 runner-up Marvin Musquin (eighth) had surprisingly disappointing races — which surely won’t be the norm this season.

On the other hand, Barcia was fast before it rained, too. And the riders who joined him on the podium — Ken Roczen and Eli Tomac — aren’t exactly flukes.

“Shoot, I probably could have told you (Barcia) was going to win this thing two weeks ago,” Barcia’s Yamaha Factory Racing teammate Aaron Plessinger said after the race. “He’s been on the gas at the test track.”

Barcia ran a patient main event and passed Dean Wilson with roughly five minutes remaining on the clock. After that, he was never challenged.

So how much can we read into Barcia’s performance given the weather?

“It wasn’t like an insane mud race,” Barcia said. “It was slippery, but we were able to do all the jumps. I think this is a good sign for the rest of the year.”

If that’s the case, Anaheim could be the start of a dream season for Barcia. In 2018, Tomac had the early lead in an Anaheim 1 main event that ultimately saw a 1-2 finish from Musquin and Anderson. Those three fastest riders of the night went on to sweep the top three spots in the point standings — though not in that order.

Even if Barcia doesn’t win another round, he still has a fantastic story. The 26-year-old wasn’t sure he would be able to continue in Supercross at the end of 2017, but was selected for fill-in duty for the first six races of 2018 when Yamaha’s Davi Millsaps got hurt.

But after Barcia podiumed in three of his first four starts, Yamaha gave him a shot for more races and set him up for a season that would revitalize his career — that is, until he injured his hand and required surgery.

Nevertheless, the team signed Barcia to a two-year deal in the offseason and he now enters 2019 as the lead rider alongside Plessinger, a rookie.

“I’ve been through a lot the past couple years, with injuries and being in a difficult place with motorcycles,” Barcia said. “I wasn’t having fun with racing. I got the opportunity last year, made the best of that. More than anything, I’m just super grateful for the opportunity to be here racing; I know it could have went a different direction.”

If you’re looking for even more signs about how the season will go after Anaheim, Barcia’s teammate happens to be another good one. Plessinger finished sixth, the best among a strong rookie class that is expected to quickly compete with the veterans.

The charismatic 22-year-old grinned while talking about competing against the likes of Tomac and Roczen.

“I’ve watched them for years now — before I went pro,” Plessinger said. “Racing them now, it’s like, ‘Oh my God. I’m out here. I’m really doing this.’’

He shook his head for a moment, reflecting on the race, then laughed.

“I’m still in a ‘Holy shit’ moment,” he said. “To get sixth against world-class Supercross racers is a good night for me, I’ll tell you that.”

Risks, rewards of Supercross racing offer unknowns heading into 2019 season

Supercross is one of the most dangerous and difficult sports on the planet, but the formula for winning a championship seems quite simple: average a podium finish while staying healthy.

Easy enough, right? Just be consistently fast and don’t get injured. No problem!

Except that logic makes no sense because in Supercross, high speed often requires high risk of crashing. And if you crash, you’ll be lucky not to get injured — which means a great season can be derailed in one small moment.

Just look at Eli Tomac. Last year, he had a three-second lead at Anaheim 1 (this year’s version takes place tonight on NBCSN) and seemed headed toward a dream start to the series.

But then Tomac suddenly went down with no one around him, injured his shoulder, finished last and had to miss the next round in Houston.

Despite going on to win eight times — double the nearest competitor — Tomac ended up third in the standings.

Meanwhile, Jason Anderson won his first career title by being consistently good without necessarily being great — the Ryan Dungey Model, if you will. Sure, Anderson won four races. But it was his reliable top-five finishes (15 of them in 17 events) combined with a lack of injury (he was the only one of the top riders to make every start) that earned him the title.

Marvin Musquin won as many races as Anderson and actually had a better average finish — 3.1 vs. 3.6 — but lost the championship in large part because he got injured and missed a round.

“You can’t cruise around in fifth every week and get a championship. There’s no way,” seven-time Supercross champ Jeremy McGrath said Friday. “But if you know it’s not in the cards tonight and you’re not feeling it and it’s, ‘Oh, I’m going to take third,’ then third should be what you take.

“I don’t believe you should push all the way through and take that risk of wrecking or hurting yourself to get the win that night. There’s going to be another opportunity. What you want to do is live to fight another day.”

Five-time Supercross champion Ricky Carmichael echoed that sentiment and seemed mystified as to how some of today’s riders approach the championship. He said half the battle is staying healthy for the entire season, which he estimated only three to five riders will be able to do.

But those mistakes are often avoidable, Carmichael said.

“Unless something happens with the bike or a backmarker takes you out, you’re in control of your own destiny,” he said. “If you have one mental slip, boom. That’s what happens. You have to have personal awareness, and if you don’t know where you’re at and aren’t paying attention all the time, that’s when stuff goes wrong.”

All of that is to say this: Supercross has more unknowns that most forms of racing, mostly because so much depends on the human element — both physical and mental.

So after an offseason of guessing, Anaheim 1 will finally offer some major clues to how this season will go.

Who put in the work during the offseason to get better? Who is in the peak condition required to go fast? Who can make it through the 17 rounds without an injury? Which teams made improvements to their bikes?

And those are just questions for the likes of Anderson, Tomac and Musquin (who is still healing from an injured knee as the season begins).

What about Ken Roczen, a star who has had consecutive season-ending arm injuries but says he’s healthy again? What about veteran Chad Reed, who moves from privateer back to a team (Joe Gibbs Racing)? What about the incredibly promising rookie class, led by 250SX West champ Aaron Plessinger and JGR’s Justin Hill, who seems more competitive on a 450cc bike than a 250 for some reason?

Oh, and then there’s this: Rain is in the forecast, which could make for a muddy Anaheim Stadium track and throw an extra wild card into the whole thing.

How will it all end up? It’s anyone’s guess, and that’s the most intriguing thing about this gritty sport.

Offseason NASCAR podcast: Five best quotes, five most memorable moments

What were the five best NASCAR quotes and the five most memorable moments of 2018? Jordan Bianchi returns to the podcast to give us his list and help answer that question. Plus a review of the most common 12 Questions answers and the best/worst races of 2018.

Explaining the Spire purchase of Furniture Row’s charter

Earlier this week, Spire Sports + Entertainment — a North Carolina-based agency — acknowledged it had purchased the No. 78 team’s charter from Furniture Row Racing and will be starting a race team.

Given the complexity of this situation, there are many questions floating around about what’s going on and what it might mean. Here’s an attempt to anticipate some of the questions and answer them.

Q: Did Spire buy Furniture Row Racing?

A: No. That’s not how this works. Spire bought the charter, which is like a franchise.

Q: I’ve never heard of Spire. Who are these people?

A: Race fans may not have heard of Spire, but every key player in the NASCAR garage has dealt with them. Founded by Jeff Dickerson (former Kyle Busch agent and spotter) and T.J. Puchyr (who formerly ran Braun Racing and Turner Motorsports), the agency now has 25 employees — including company president Ty Norris, who formerly held major roles at Michael Waltrip Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. It’s a mostly behind-the-scenes operation, but Spire has been pulling a lot of strings in the NASCAR world since 2010.

Q: OK, so they have racing people working for them. I still don’t get what Spire does.

A: Spire was originally intended to be a driver representation company, and that remains a big part of the business (Kyle Larson and James Hinchcliffe are among the clients). They handle things like contract negotiations and driver brands, for example. But over the years, Spire has expanded into also representing sponsors (5-Hour Energy, DC Solar, Brandt among them) and even working closely with race teams (Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing) and manufacturers (Toyota). Their client portfolio even includes a racetrack (Knoxville Raceway).

Q: Whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re telling me one company is negotiating on behalf of drivers, sponsors AND teams? Conflict of interest much?

A: It might sound crazy, but the company doesn’t shy away from it (this despite being named in the Brennan Poole lawsuit over the summer). I asked Dickerson, the CEO, in an interview this week about the appearance of conflict.

“These are the waters we navigate every day,” he said. “We certainly do not hide from anybody what we do. We’re not blind to the appearances and we will work with all of our clients to make them comfortable on what the priority is.”

And what’s the priority? The agency will remain the priority over the race team, he said.

Q: Uh, what? So why did the agency buy a charter to start a race team then?

A: Remember I mentioned how Spire has race teams among its partners? One of those was Furniture Row Racing, and Puchyr, the Spire co-founder, had developed a close relationship with Barney Visser and Joe Garone. In the process of shopping the charter, Visser floated the idea of Puchyr and Dickerson buying it themselves. At the same time, Spire had been looking for something big to make a statement to the industry and potential sponsors —  and a way to have something concrete for their own employees in a volatile business, which sometimes leaves them chasing commissions.

The Spire guys decided to take the leap. The deal was agreed to in September, although Visser couldn’t officially sell the charter until after the season.

“Beachfront property like this doesn’t come available very often and we’re here to do big things,” Dickerson said. “We think this purchase checks a lot of boxes on the messages that TJ and I are trying to send.”

Q: Can’t someone send a message without risking millions of dollars? And how can an agency possibly afford this?

A: Dickerson sees owning a race team in helping several different areas. For example: When his sales people go into a meeting with a potential client who has questions about the health of the sport, they can now point to this investment as proof they truly believe in racing’s future. Spire is essentially backing up its talk by putting money on the table while showing that it’s not going anywhere.

As for the expense, the 78’s charter was more valuable than others because weekly payouts from races are now based in large part on how a team has performed in the last three seasons. In Furniture Row’s case, it was 11th, first and second in the points. That means the checks from NASCAR after each race should help in repaying whatever loans Spire likely took out to obtain the charter.

Q: Oh, so is it a money grab? They’re just going to run a car and get the check?

Dickerson insists this is a long-term play and the team isn’t looking to just flip the charter. He scoffs at those who would suggest anyone is making big bucks in today’s ownership climate.

It’s different when it’s your butt writing that check and taking that risk,” he said. “This is a significant risk for us that we hope pays off.”

Q: OK, but what about the race team? Who is the driver? Where are they getting cars from? Are they going to be competitive?

A: The team is going to be called Spire Motorsports, and it will run a No. 77 Chevrolet. Those are all the details that have been confirmed at this time. Given Spire’s connections to Hendrick and Ganassi, you could probably guess they’ll end up in some sort of technical alliance with one of them in order to make the team function. (Update: The team will be leasing space in the Premium Motorsports shop and have a partnership — at least on some level — with Premium. However, Premium isn’t running the team.)

It’s hard to predict whether the team will be competitive until we know more about the plans to hire a driver (or drivers), a crew chief, crew, etc.

Q: I’m sorry, but just back up for one more minute. You’re telling me an agency that does business with Toyota is going to run Chevrolets? An agency that negotiates driver contracts and sponsorships with race teams is now going to race against some of the very drivers and sponsors it represents?

A: I asked Dickerson what all his company’s various partners thought of Spire starting a team. He said they were all consulted and gave their support.

“It’s just racing, man,” he said. “We all have raced for a long time and we’ve raced against our friends and our family. I think for three hours on Sunday we can figure it out.”

The truth about Bob

Bob Pockrass won’t be covering motorsports for ESPN after this season, a revelation that should set off alarm bells for anyone who cares about NASCAR.

It’s not so much about ESPN. Though it’s scary to see another major news outlet step back from racing, that alone won’t have much impact on NASCAR’s current fans.

What would have an impact, though, is losing Bob. His future at the moment is unclear, and it’s possible he could remain on the NASCAR beat should another employer come along to scoop him up.

Let’s hope that happens, because if this season was the final one with Bob at the racetrack, we’re all going to be worse for it.

I’ve been dreading the prospect of a Bob-less media center for years, but I always thought it would be because he keeled over after working himself to death — not because an employer willingly let him go.

Bob’s work ethic goes beyond the hours spent at the track, which are well-documented. A relentless journalism machine, Bob’s mind rarely takes a break from the job.

Here’s one small example: Back when we were co-workers at NASCAR Scene, Bob would spend his one day off per week by going to the county courthouse to search the names of every driver and team to make sure a story hadn’t fallen through the cracks. Even now, if you look over at his computer screen during downtime at the track, he’s often doing a search of court records.

Bob seems to know everyone in the garage, from the top Cup drivers to backmarker Xfinity owners. He’s always checking in and asking for information (“Anything new with you guys?”), which means even the most minor stories rarely catch him by surprise. As such, people seek him out in the NASCAR garage and start conversations with, “What do you know, Bob?”

Even in the media center — aside from often asking the tough questions that need to be asked — Bob is seen as a source of information. If someone can’t remember a NASCAR rule or procedure, they ask Bob. There have even been times when crew chiefs ask him for clarification (“Does this mean we have to start at the back, Bob?”). And he always knows.

Those are just a couple reasons why NASCAR stands to lose so much without Bob on the beat. It’s not a knock against other reporters, but no one obsesses over the nitty gritty details of the sport quite like he does. And when you think about it, those smaller details (pit stall selection, for example) add up to feed the passion of NASCAR’s most hardcore fans.

Bob’s dedication to his work has seemed borderline unhealthy at times to friends, who have tried at times to stage interventions. Take a break, Bob! Relax! But attempting to get him to do less is like trying to snatch a juicy steak from the jaws of a pit bull. His extreme sense of duty to inform readers — you’ve seen this through his Twitter interactions — cannot be matched.

One of the most recent arguments, a negotiation that began months ago, is what Bob would be willing to do for his 50th birthday next year. It’s on March 1, and NASCAR will be in Las Vegas — a perfect place to celebrate with a dinner. The only problem is it’s the same night as a Truck Series race, and Bob has indicated he’d rather not leave the track.

Because of his dedication, Bob has become the backbone of the NASCAR media over the years. He’d never say that himself, and he’s probably going to be pissed at this column putting him in the spotlight. There’s no ego or self-promotion when it comes to Bob. But whether he acknowledges it or not, Bob has been the best on the NASCAR beat.

Fortunately for Bob, his skills can apply to any form of journalism. There’s no substitute for hustle, and I’m certain he won’t have trouble finding another job (even ESPN would be wise to retain him in a different capacity). I know he’s going to be just fine.

Selfishly, though, I hope Bob stays in NASCAR. We will all be less informed and less knowledgeable if 2018 turns out to be his final lap.