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)

Column: NASCAR’s 2019 rules package tough to swallow, but may be necessary to save sport

When word first leaked of NASCAR’s plan to use an All-Star-type package for next season, I immediately started thinking of other racing series I could cover instead.

The mere thought made me sick. Taking the best stock car drivers in the world and dumbing down the racing? Sorry, but I had no interest in watching some buy-a-ride rich kid have a chance to go out there, hold it wide open around a 1.5-mile track and suddenly be able to compete with the likes of Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson.

That’s not why I watch sports. I want to see the best do their thing and be able to see true talent shine through.

But a recent quote from IndyCar president of competition Jay Frye entered my mind. In talking about why IndyCar was going toward lower downforce and higher horsepower, he said: “Every motorsports series has its thing, and we’re going back to being fast and loud. These cars are hard to drive and cool to look at.”

So if that’s IndyCar’s “thing,” what is NASCAR’s thing?

Well, as you know from following NASCAR through the years, it’s entertainment. NASCAR is about putting on a good show and trying to please its fans — which often comes at the expense of concepts people consider “pure” racing.

NASCAR has playoffs — and not just playoffs, but eliminations and points resets! NASCAR has artificial cautions during the races (stages). NASCAR has overtime — unlimited attempts! — so fans can see a finish under green. NASCAR has double-file restarts and free passes and wavearounds. And NASCAR officiates in a way that allows contact and blocking, where other series frown upon it.

All those things add up to a search for entertainment. That’s what sets NASCAR apart when it comes to its decision-making. 

So the announcement NASCAR will implement a rules package that will force closer racing next season? That is completely, 100 percent on-brand for what NASCAR is.

But there’s something else at play with all this, and it’s much more of a factor for me at least taking a wait-and-see approach.

NASCAR isn’t doing this solely as some desperate, Hail Mary move to try and fix the racing. If that were the case, I’d be 100 percent against it.

There’s actually a long-term vision in the works that makes this digestible: Saving the sport from a financial standpoint.

Right now, the Cup Series engines use a tapered spacer (which restricts horsepower) that results in roughly 750 hp. NASCAR, in its search for new manufacturers to enter the sport, has traveled around the world only to be told such a high-powered engined with 1950s technology would be a non-starter for a potential new OEM. The cost of developing that type of engine would be astronomical and serves as a deterrent to a new entry.

So if NASCAR is going to have any real chance of attracting a new manufacturer, it needs to get the number down to 550 hp.

Why is that important? Because manufacturers have money. LOTS of money! And they’re willing to spend it in big ways. Just look at Formula E, which is going to have more than 10 manufacturers by its sixth season of existence — including the likes of Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes, Nissan and Porsche. They’re collectively pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a racing series that isn’t even that popular or established yet.

Chevy, Ford and Toyota are great for NASCAR and its teams, but NASCAR needs another couple manufacturers to come in and infuse the race teams with money. As seen with the recent sponsorship struggles, that factory support is more important than ever in modern-day NASCAR.

So that’s one factor. The other is this: The Gen 7 car IS coming, but it’s likely still a couple years away. NASCAR needs to find somewhat of a temporary stopgap until that car arrives and incorporates many of the concepts officials are now trying to reach with this package.

Now, do fans have to like this decision? Absolutely not, and I know some are going to be vehemently against this concept. Some drivers have also been outspoken in their dislike for it, with some privately saying this might make them consider a different direction in their careers.

But here’s the thing: Motorsports is a huge, diverse neighborhood. And so if a rules package makes you angry enough to bid farewell to NASCAR, then IndyCar is right down the street.

Of course, with IndyCar, you’re going to see races end under yellow and some events go completely caution-free. So maybe you won’t like that.

OK, well then how about Formula One? They have badass cars and cool technology, intriguing personalities and racing on a world stage. F1 might not be a bad option if you’re looking for the “pure” racing thing.

On the other hand, the car leading in the first turn often wins an F1 race — at least when the driver isn’t told to move aside for team orders. Ugh.

Hmm. Well then what about sprint cars? Man, sprint cars are AMAZING! The racing is like watching a combination of extreme sports and bullfighting, and the drivers are super accessible.

That said, none of the races are on TV, it’s hold-your-breath dangerous (which you might not be able to stomach) and you’re probably going to get hit in the face with clumps of mud when you go to the track. Not exactly the big-league NASCAR experience you may be used to.

Look, I’m not trying to stump for you to remain a NASCAR fan. That is up to you. As I said earlier, I’ve personally struggled with the concept of this new package and am still torn. Hell, so are the drivers!

But I keep coming back to the entertainment factor. Are the boring 1.5-mile tracks going to look better next season? Probably, yeah. It’s the way they’re getting there that is bothersome.

So what if someone zapped my minds with the memory device from Men in Black and I didn’t know the details of what made NASCAR racing seem more competitive?

That’s wishful thinking for those of us who follow every detail of the sport, but it will be reality for many NASCAR fans next season. That’s because a lot of casual fans (who aren’t on Twitter, probably) will flip on some of the races next year and go, “Dang, the racing looks closer!” without having any idea how it got that way.

If that’s the case, maybe it will be a good thing. And if this direction results in additional manufacturers joining NASCAR, it will definitely be a good thing.

On the other hand, this move threatens to run off some of NASCAR’s remaining passionate fans, not help the racing like NASCAR thinks it will and result in no new OEMs signing up.

That’s the gamble. And it’s a massive one, because now it involves the credibility of the racing itself.

But for those of us who have called on NASCAR officials to “DO SOMETHING,” now they are. Next year will reveal whether it was the right something — or one of the biggest mistakes yet.