The Driven Life: Sherry Pollex on perspective and positivity

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Sherry Pollex, the longtime partner of Martin Truex Jr. who turns 40 years old on Friday — a birthday she wasn’t sure she would ever reach during a fierce battle with cancer.

Following you on social media after everything you have been through with your illness, I feel like you’re living life to the fullest and maximizing each day more than anybody that I know. So I want to talk to you and see if you can offer some tips for other people.

Thank you for that, first of all, that you think of me that way. That means a lot to me.

I do feel like I’m a really positive person and I try to wake up every day and live life to the fullest. I felt like I did that before I got diagnosed with cancer, but now that I live the way I do after cancer, I don’t know if I was fully living that way with that much joy and gratitude.

So I feel like now life after cancer is mentally and physically exhausting at times, but I try to wake up every day and see the positive in everything that I do. Even on the days I don’t feel good, I always think, “This too shall pass. Tomorrow is a new day and I’m going to feel better tomorrow.” Or “Something amazing could happen tomorrow and I’ll meet somebody that I can inspire or bring a smile to their face.”

Even just like if I’m at Target or I’m at the grocery store, it’s amazing what you can do when you’re at a checkout line and the person checking you out seems like they’re having a really bad day or they have a bad attitude. If you just smile at them or tell them they’re pretty or tell them that what they’re wearing is beautiful. It can be such a small compliment, but it can completely change somebody’s life.

I wake up every day and just have so much gratitude and joy for this life that I’m living, even though I have a chronic illness. And it’s so hard. People ask me all the time: “I don’t get it. How do you stay so positive and how are you happy all the time when you have Stage 3C ovarian cancer?” And I wake up every day and just think this life is amazing.

If you look around you, there’s so much positivity and there’s so much beauty in this earth. The people who want to make a difference and want to inspire each other — there is a lot of us if you look for us.

The first thing that I do when I wake up in the morning, first of all, is I pray, which I think kind of sets the intentions for my day. I thanked God for the warm bed that I slept in this morning, I thanked him for this amazing trip that I had with my girlfriends for my upcoming 40th birthday. I try to say at least three to five things that I’m grateful for. Like I do like a little gratitude moment: I just say what I’m grateful for and then I do a big stretch and I get out of bed and start my day. And I think that that’s such a great way to start your day.

So many people, the first thing they do (after waking up) is they get on their phone or they get news alerts on their iPhone, right? Or they get on Twitter or they get on Facebook or they get on Instagram, and there’s so much negativity on them. There’s so many great things about social media, but there’s a lot of negativity, too. There’s so much negativity on those outlets and for me to start my day like that, I’m not setting a good intention for the rest of my day, right? If I’ve already looked at that, I’ve already started my brain thinking that way and I don’t want to do that.

So I think if you start your day with thinking about the things that you’re joyful for, the things that bring you joy and you think about gratitude and all the things that you’re thankful for, you know then that kind of sets the tone for everything in your life and it makes every day seem that much better. It does for me, anyway.

So is it literally like you wake up and you force yourself to not look at your phone? You won’t pick up your phone?

Well I have this new rule — and I actually learned this from not only my counselor, but just some other holistic healers that I listen to and other spiritual leaders that I listen to. I listen to a lot of podcasts, too, and I learned that for the first two hours that you’re awake, you shouldn’t look at your phone.

I realize for everybody that’s not possible — people that have kids and have to work and have to go right into their day. But I wake up fairly early for me, so I make it a rule that for two hours from the time that I wake up on most days — not every day, it’s not possible every day because some days you have commitments and you have things you have to do and you think of something that you should have texted somebody last night, so you do it really quick. So some days it’s not possible, but I try to at least three days a week not look at my phone for the first two hours that I’m up.

I read my Bible. I write in a gratitude journal. I have a cup of tea and I sit out on the back porch and look at the lake and think about how beautiful the area that we live in is. I think about what I’m going to do that day if there’s an opportunity to inspire somebody with my story or my disease. I write a lot of blogs on, so I write that from my phone.

If I have to write on my phone, I try to stay away from social media. I try to just use it for whatever I’m using it for in that moment. Like for instance, my Bible app is on my phone, so sometimes I’m on it because my Bible app is on there. But I’m not looking at negative news outlets and I think that’s so important, just to not start your day with negativity.

So how do you avoid getting sucked into the negativity of the world once you do start looking at it? And not just on social media, but in life you’ll come across people who are negative. How do you try to keep the positive spirit going throughout the day?

Well for one, I think if you have negative people in your life like that, you shouldn’t be friends with them. That was one of the first things I did after I was diagnosed: All the people in my life who are what I call Debbie Downers, who just were bringing me down in my life, I just got rid of them. I’m not around them anymore.

I’m not mean or ungrateful for the people who have helped my through my life or have done things for me, I just don’t have friendships with those people. I don’t choose to spend my time with them.

So I think it’s all about choices, right? We wake up every day and we have a choice on how we want to live our life that day. Do we want to live with joy and gratitude, or do we want to be negative pessimists? I choose to wake up every day and I’m like, “Yeah, I have this disease and it sucks.” Nobody wants to have cancer and nobody wants to take chemo every day. But I always think to myself there’s so many people that have it so much worse than I do. I think about all the people that have Stage 4 pancreatic cancer or have cancers that are way worse than I do and can’t get out of bed in the morning and can’t even go to work and can’t function and can’t get up and make breakfast. And I think about those people and I pray for them and then I think about how lucky I am that I can do those things.

So I think if you just focus on what you can do and what you can’t do, it makes such a huge difference. Yeah there’s some things that I can’t do that I could do in my pre-cancer life. But it’s OK; the rest of my life is not going to be perfect.

Nobody’s life is full of sunshine and rainbows. That’s probably my favorite thing to tell people. No one’s life is perfect. No matter what you see on social media, nobody’s life is perfect. We have this idea of what our life should be like, with marriage and kids and everything is perfect and we live in this house with a white picket fence, but that’s not everyone’s reality. And it’s really no one’s reality, because everybody that even tells you they have that reality usually doesn’t have it.

So I always think to myself we all have this path we’ve gone down in our lives and we make a choice when we go down that path to be around negative people and to let negative things in life affect us — or we don’t. And if I come across something on Twitter or Instagram that’s negative, usually I scroll right by. I don’t read it. I don’t pay a ton of attention to it. 

Do I get mad and angry like everybody else? Yeah, of course I do. If you follow me on social media, you can see that I’m a firecracker. I have a sassy attitude and I do get upset about things. But I’ve learned to just take deep breaths and let those things go by quicker than I used to. I have my days where I’m not happy about stuff and there is negativity around me, but I’ve just found a different way to cope with it.

It’s interesting that you mentioned a couple times that you sort of seek a chance to inspire someone. I guess in my daily life it’s not something that crosses my mind where like I’m thinking, “Oh, I could actually improve this person’s day.” Which I should, because anybody can improve somebody’s day — you don’t need to have a license to do it or something like that.

Yeah, and you just hit the nail on the head, right? We all have different ways we inspire people. You don’t have to be a cancer patient to inspire somebody. You don’t have to have gone through some kind of tragedy or great trauma in your life to inspire someone. We all have our gifts that God has given us and we all have something we can use to inspire others.

I tell Martin all the time, “Your gift is that you are able to have this amazing talent to be a race car driver and you can use that platform to be a role model to other children and kids that look up to you and want to be you one day.” Or, “Use it to inspire kids that are battling an illness or whatever it might be.” There’s so many things that we can do.

And I think when you’ve gone through something like I’ve been through and then you come out the other side and you’re like, “Oh wow, I’m still here. I’m still alive and I still have this opportunity to live this amazing life even though I’m probably going to fight this disease forever until it kills me.” How can I use that? Like what is God trying to teach me? What lesson am I learning?

To me, it was like this huge awakening, like this spiritual awakening. Like God is trying to teach me something; what is this path that he’s put me on and how can I use it to do good in this world so that when I leave here I leave behind this legacy of wanting to help others and bring positivity and sunlight and happiness to other people?

So that’s really what I concentrate on with Sherry Strong and with our (Martin Truex Jr.) Foundation. Every time we go to the hospital or every time I talk to another cancer patient, sitting down with them and holding their hand and being like, “Yeah, I know it’s really tough right now and I know it sucks. But there’s going to come a day where you are going to feel better and this too shall pass.” That was my favorite thing to say to myself as I was going through my really rough chemo: “This too shall pass.” There’s going to come a day where I’m going to be sitting here like I am with you today and the sun is going to be shining and I’m going to feel great and I’m going to be like, “Oh my gosh, God gave me a second chance at life. Now what am I gonna do with it?” And for me that’s, “OK, how can I inspire more people and give more people with cancer hope?”

Because that’s my passion, right? We’re all gifted at something and we all have this path that we’re on, and for me it was I just wanted to help other people make it through this disease and teach them about integrated medicine and all the things that I used to help me feel better and the mindful practices that I’ve used to help me get through it. It’s just been amazing and I feel so lucky to be here.

Some days you’re tired and have to rally yourself. Some people drink coffee or tea; what do you take? Do you have, like…pills or something…?

Are you asking me if I like have a magic happy pill? (Laughs)

No, like some holistic something. I don’t know.

So I think I kind of know what you’re asking me. I do take a lot of supplements and a lot of vitamins, which I think helps me feel good. When we feel good as humans naturally, our mind feels good and our body feels good.

I’m a true believer in you are what you eat, you are what you live, you are who you say you are, right? So like for me, that’s practicing mindful connections every day. I do yoga a lot and I do a lot of meditation and I’ll even repeat little mantras in my mind, like, “I am healthy. I am strong,” because like the mind-body connection is huge to me.

If my mind feels good, I can teach my body how to feel good even though I’m battling this disease. So I do a lot of like green tea and dandelion tea and I make this essiac tea, which is like this cancer-fighting tea. I do a lot of things that boost my immune system, and I think those things all help my body stay strong so that I can fight my disease but also to keep my mind healthy so that I can be in the right state of mind to inspire other people and bring them joy and happiness and do things for myself, if that makes sense.

So I don’t think there’s like this magic pill that you take every day. CBD oil is huge right now and that’s proven to lessen people’s pain and anxiety and inflammation and so yeah, that’s sort of like a happy pill I guess if you wanted to say it that way. I mean there’s other things that you can do, but for me, those are the things that work for me. I’m not speaking for everybody, I’m just more speaking about what I do for myself and those things kind of set my intentions for the whole day after I do yoga and meditation and I take my supplements and I make a green smoothie. That’s kind of how I start my day and if I feel good, that kind of sets my tone for the whole day.

Are you on some sort of a diet where you’re strict about stuff, or do you just try to make healthy choices with what you put in your body?

Oh no, I’m on a really strict diet. Like a crazy strict diet. I eat like only really healthy foods. It’s crazy. A lot of it is on, but that’s probably the number one question I get asked from people on social media, is, “What do you eat every day?”

This morning, I made a green smoothie with a lot of fruits and vegetables in it and some mushroom powder and some collagen and some protein powder. Usually for lunch I have a big salad and then for dinner I have salmon and vegetables. So that’s like an average day. That’s not every day because I eat a lot of variety and stuff, but I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables mostly.

But I think that that’s huge because like we just talked about, you are what you eat. It kind of sets the tone. If you eat crappy food all the time and you eat junk food all the time and you eat a lot of refined sugar and you drink a lot of soda and all these things, then you don’t feel good, you know? And then when you don’t feel good, how can you be a source of happiness and joy for other people? Because you’re miserable with yourself and how you feel.

Some people can’t help it — they’re battling a terrible illness, so it doesn’t matter how they eat. They still don’t feel good you know? But if you have the opportunity to make that change, then what an incredible change that you can make.

Everybody has stuff that goes on in their life in varying degrees and it’s tempting to feel sorry for yourself. Why don’t you feel sorry for yourself? Or at least you don’t come across that way.

Yeah, so I had that in the beginning when I first was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Most people who have followed me on social media know that I really wanted to be a mom, and in the beginning, about three months before I was diagnosed, I was trying to get pregnant. I went to the doctor because I was like, “Oh my stomach hurts, I’m a little bit bloated,” I thought “Maybe I am pregnant.”

And then they told me I had Stage 3C ovarian cancer and I was going to be in surgery five days later and I was going to have a radical hysterectomy and I would never have kids.

I had that moment when I got home, that “Why me?” moment. I threw myself on the floor, like fully blown like temper tantrum fit like a four-year-old would do. And Martin just stood there and watched me and just cried and was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to help you, I don’t know what to do with you,” because he was so sad, too and he was so devastated that I was so sick.

We didn’t realize how sick I was until we saw the scan and all the tumors in my body — which there was like 40 to 50 tumors in my body.

So I think I had that in the beginning, that, “Why me?” And then I remember talking to a friend of mine that was getting chemotherapy and you might know him. His name was Steve Byrnes. He was sitting next to this 97-year-old lady on his right who was getting chemotherapy for breast cancer or something. And he was sitting next to a 19-year-old on his left who had testicular cancer. And he said, “Sher, I walked in and I sat down to get my chemo, and I was feeling sorry myself and I was thinking that, ‘Why me? Why am I here? Why can’t I live a normal life?’ And I looked next to me at this 97-year-old lady that was at the end of her life fighting and I looked to my left at this guy that was 19 and just starting his life and was fighting and I thought, ‘Why not me? What makes me any different? What makes me more special than them? What makes my life, my age, color of my skin, my social status, whatever it might be that makes you different — what makes me different from them?’”

And we talked about that a lot, Steve and I. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. No disease discriminates. It doesn’t matter what you’re going through in your life; we’re all going to experience some type of suffering or tragedy in our life, right? So how do you get past that point where you’re just like, at one point in my life I’m going to have something bad that’s going to happen and then I’ll come to a place where I’m OK with it?

It’s different for everybody, but for me it was just like, “I’m around these children every day that fight cancer and they’re five years old and three years old. They haven’t even had a chance to live their life yet.” And then I started to feel lucky that I was 35 when I was diagnosed and that I had lived 35 years of my life.

I was like, “Wow, look at all the amazing trips I’ve gone on, look at all the amazing things that I’ve done. How lucky am I that I have made it this far and that I’m not five or 15 or 19 fighting this terrible illness and might not ever have the chance to get married or have kids or do all the things you want to do in life?”

For me it was spending time with friends and family, traveling, inspiring people. Yeah, I wanted to be a mom, but I couldn’t be anymore. So it was like, “OK, do I want to adopt now? Do I just want to take care of these babies at the hospital and let them be my kids?”

And I haven’t felt sorry for myself a day since. I really haven’t. I haven’t had one day when I woke up and thought, “Why me?” Even in my worst, darkest days like when I shaved my head, when I was in the worst of my chemotherapy, when I had my recurrence, when they told me I had to go on oral chemo — I mean I’ve on chemo for four out of the last five years. I’ve never had one day where I was like, “Why me?”

I just thought, “I’m gonna get through this and I’m gonna live every day and I’m going to live it to the best of my ability. I’m going to be a happy person while I’m living it and whatever happens happens. God’s blessed me with this much time on this earth, if he takes me now, then whatever I’ve done and whatever I’ve blessed to do, then let that be my legacy here.”

If you could just inject the average person with some bit of knowledge that you just wish people could realize about life in general, what would it be?

As a cancer patient, that’s such an interesting question because there’s so many things, right? You wake up and you’re like, “Why can’t people see that butterfly that just flew by was amazing? That God made that butterfly and she’s so beautiful?”

The color in the sky is bluer and the grass is greener. It’s so hard to explain to people that you have to go through what I’ve been through to experience that, and I hate that. I wish everybody could just experience that and not have to go through tragedy to feel that. Because for me, everything about my life has been more vibrant and colorful and amazing and joyful. And I hate that it took cancer for me to see that, to see how amazing that all is.

But the one thing that I think every day when I wake up that I’m like, “Why can’t people just see this?” would be like when you think that you have a problem and you think it’s a really big problem, (it’s not). Like it could be sitting in traffic, right? Martin gets so frustrated when he’s sitting in traffic on I-77 and he starts to get all upset about it and I’m like, “Why can’t you just see right now that this problem is so small? Why can’t you see that there’s so much more out there, there are so many bigger problems and that there’s somebody right now who is praying for your problem?”

My mom tells me every night when you say your prayers, remember that there’s somebody across the world that’s wishing they could trade prayers with you — because they’re wishing they could pray for what you’re praying for. And it’s such a true statement.

It’s not just Martin, it’s not just me, it’s everybody. Every single person that wakes up and goes throughout their day is going to encounter some obstacle or some problem that they go through, and every time they hit that bump in the road, instead of thinking, “Gosh, this is a mountain I can’t climb,” instead of complaining about it…why don’t we offer a solution, or why don’t we talk about the positive sides of it?

And I realize that that’s not always going to happen. Like I was upset with the way qualifying was a couple weeks ago, too. Like I get it, we’re all going to have those moments. Nothing can be perfect all the time.

But we can choose how we react to those moments and we can choose what our attitude is to those moments and we also can make choices to say, “You know what, this is a really small problem in my life and this too is going to pass.”

Then when something big comes along, it’s like you’re ready for it, and then you realize all those little problems were just getting you ready for that really big one. Those things are just really small in the grand scheme of things.

So I think that’s probably my biggest (thing). I’ll be out to lunch with girlfriends and they’ll be talking about pickup at school and how they waited in line for so long and the kids didn’t want to go to school or something happened at school and bullied the other kid or something happened. And I’m like, “I wish those were my problems. I wish my kid was at school when somebody was mean to her today and I can teach her that that’s not OK and to kill people with kindness every day. I wish I had a little girl like that.” You know?

Like I wish I had a little girl that was healthy and awesome or a little boy and I could inspire her to be this amazing person to other people one day. But I’m never going to have that opportunity. So I think it’s all about perspective, right? We make a choice every day when we encounter a problem and putting it in perspective of what’s really going on in our life and people’s lives around us and the minute you do that and you have compassion for somebody else, it changes everything. It’s pretty incredible.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover spring race

Five thoughts after Monday’s race at Dover…

1. The natives are restless

How long did you think it would take before some in the NASCAR garage started making sharply critical comments about the rules package?

If you had 11 races into the season, you win.

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and team owner Bob Leavine were among those who voiced…um…concerns about the rules package after the Dover race.

“The package sucks,” Busch told reporters, including Frontstretch’s Dustin Albino, on pit road. “No fucking question about it. It’s terrible.”

“Let me second @KyleBusch statement, this package sucks,” Leavine tweeted shortly thereafter. “Has nothing to do with where he finished.”

“Here’s the hard thing about the package,” Harvick told reporters, including Davey Segal. “NASCAR’s tried to accomplish a lot of things with one particular package, but you look at how the cars drive behind each other, and from a driver’s standpoint, it’s hard to race them. Anywhere.”

The NASCAR Foundation may be getting some donations after at least two of those statements, but that doesn’t mean they’re not true. NASCAR certainly doesn’t want drivers to bad-mouth the package, but the majority of the drivers feel the same way Busch does — they’ve just been biting their tongues for awhile now.

This rules package, aside from greatly benefiting the Talladega race, hasn’t lived up to expectations at intermediate tracks and outright hurt the racing at ovals 1 mile or less.

At some point, if that trend continues, drivers are going to get bolder about speaking their minds. The frustration has been bubbling and building just beneath the surface, and it was only a matter of time before an outspoken driver like Busch said something.

Now, will that change anything? Not immediately. If anything, Leavine’s comment may carry more weight — because it’s the team owners who would have to agree to any midseason changes to the package.

But if drivers start to voice their opinions and the momentum builds for a change, NASCAR ultimately might be forced into going a different direction.

2. Gibbs World

A hot topic one month ago was the combined domination of Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske — something that was interrupted only by a superspeedway-generated Hendrick Motorsports victory last week.

It was easy to look at JGR and Penske after eight races — back when JGR had won five races and Penske three — and go, “They’re kicking everyone’s butts!”

But now JGR has won SEVEN races (out of 11), so maybe it’s more like JGR is doing the butt-kicking by itself.

For example: Four Cup Series drivers have multiple wins this season — and three of them drive for JGR. Meanwhile, other traditionally strong teams like Stewart-Haas Racing haven’t won at all.

While Busch and Hamlin struggled on Monday, Truex stomped the field and won by more than nine seconds. So the organization clearly has speed, even on days when not all the team’s cars hit on the setup.

What’s the point of noting this? We’re starting to approach the time of the season where trends are identified and become storylines, like the Big Three hatching out of its spring egg last year. So just keep in mind JGR is starting to pile up a crazy total of wins — at least for the first week of May — and might have a chance to go on a historic run of trophy-hogging.

3. Dover needs a rain deal

Dover is one of the last tracks in NASCAR without some sort of weather protection plan for fans, which hurt some of the track’s loyal customers in the wallet this weekend.

Pocono has the “Worry-Free Weather Guarantee,” where if a race is rained out and your ticket isn’t scanned on the postponed date, you automatically get a refund.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. and International Speedway Corp. have both adopted weather guarantees of their own, where fans can exchange any unused grandstand ticket for another race at an ISC or SMI track within one year of the originally scheduled race (or next year’s race at the same track).

But Dover — along with Indianapolis, as far as I can tell — are the lone remaining tracks without such fan protection programs.

Granted, a Cup Series race at Dover hadn’t been rained out in 12 years (which is a pretty incredible run). So it’s not like this was a big issue for the track.

After Sunday, though, the track should step up and implement a weather guarantee for the future. I received tweets from fans who had to eat the cost of their tickets because they couldn’t return on Monday — and some vowed not to make that mistake again.

It’s just not good to put your core customers in that position, which I’m sure is being made clear to track officials through fan feedback. Hopefully Dover can learn from this weekend and make an improvement soon.

4. Who needed it more?

Both Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman had great runs on Monday, helping Chevrolet retain some momentum and helping their teams move back into the playoff picture.

But in my view, Bowman’s finish was more important than Larson’s.

Larson finally had a race without a piano falling out of the sky and landing on his car, which is good for him. He needed a nice, clean run — and he got one. The thing is, I haven’t really heard people wondering aloud if Larson would ever get back to being competitive again. It was more a matter of time before his streak of misfortune ended and he started running well.

Bowman, though, is a different case. Since he’s yet to win in the No. 88 car and doesn’t run up front, it seems like he’s always getting mentioned as someone who could be on the hot seat. (His contract runs through 2020, if you were wondering.) So stringing together back-to-back runner-up finishes — with Dover way more impressive than Talladega — is a fantastic development for him.

Hendrick has obviously been down the last couple seasons, so Bowman has had somewhat of a built-in excuse. If a seven-time champion can’t run up front and win, would you really expect Bowman to do so?

But measuring success in that case really comes down to comparison against teammates, and Bowman was the best of the Hendrick drivers at Dover.

He’ll need more than that to stay with the team long term, but runs like that certainly help his cause.

5. What’s next

After three short tracks, a superspeedway and whatever category of track Dover is, it’s time for a return to the type of venues that make up the meat of the schedule.

Kansas is up next (a Saturday night race this weekend) followed by the All-Star Race and Coke 600 at Charlotte. Then it’s off to high-speed tracks Pocono and Michigan before an off week. 

Perhaps the package will work better at one of those tracks (Michigan, maybe?), thus temporarily alleviating some of the criticism. I’m sure NASCAR would more than welcome that, if so.

But it will also be worth watching these upcoming races to see if the Hendrick speed burst is an illusion, whether Busch can keep up his freakish top-10 streak (now 13 in a row dating to last year), whether the Penske cars can get back to the top tier of teams with JGR and whether drivers like Kevin Harvick or Kyle Larson can break through for their first wins of the season.

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)

Championship Media Day podcast from Miami Beach

NASCAR championship contenders Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick met with the media Thursday at a hotel in Miami Beach. This brief recap podcast includes selected comments from each driver.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR playoff race at ISM Raceway…

1.  Big stage is set

After all the crazy twists of these playoffs, NASCAR ended up with the best four drivers of the season going for the championship.

There are no flukes here. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. have the best average finishes of anyone in the Cup Series this season (in that order). In the traditional/non-playoff point standings, which are still kept by, those four drivers are also tops in season-long points.

It’s a stout group, and you could make a case for any of them winning the title.

“This is the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time,” Busch said.

There are no newcomers among them, either.  Each contender has been in the final four at least twice — even though this is only the fifth year of its existence. Logano is the least experienced of the contenders — and yet this is his 10th season.

“Three of us have won in the format and all four of us have lost in the format,” Busch said. “Overall, it just comes back to a lot of things having to go your way.”

So what’s going to happen at Homestead? Well, it would be a surprise if the drivers didn’t run 1-2-3-4 for much of the race, and maybe even finish that way.

Harvick though, remains the favorite. It’s a 1.5-mile track and he’s consistently been the fastest off the truck all year. Strange things can happen, as we saw at Phoenix, but the Fords are still better than the Toyotas on intermediate tracks.

So that said, my prediction for the finishing order of this year’s final four is: Harvick-Logano-Busch-Truex.

2. Playoff races raise the game

It’s OK to have a love/hate relationship with this playoff format. There are days when it seems far from the best way to decide an auto racing champion.

But Sunday was not one of those days. The playoff pressure absolutely elevated the Phoenix race and made it far more compelling than it may have been otherwise.

Look at how desperately Aric Almirola was driving at the end. Look at the decisions made by Kurt Busch and his team to try to preserve their points position over Harvick. The whole atmosphere and vibe of the race was dramatically enhanced by the playoffs, and it made for a highly entertaining day.

Yeah, it’s still weird to have one race at a given track decide the season-long winner. On the other hand, it gains credibility when the best drivers all advance — and the addition of playoff points have certainly helped.

“I think the format we have now is the absolutely best scenario we could have when you look at it for the entirety of the year,” Busch said.

3. Smoke’s thoughts

Tony Stewart had his hands full on Sunday. He knew it would be challenging for a team owner — that’s what happens when you have four teammates going for one spot. But he had to step into an extra role as well: Counselor.

As Kurt Busch was having a meltdown on the radio after a tough penalty took  the race lead away and cost him a lap, Stewart intervened and told Busch to take a deep breath. After the race, Stewart consoled Busch with an embrace and words of encouragement — something Busch expressed gratitude for later.

It was if the current Stewart was talking to the racer Stewart from 10 years ago as the voice of reason.

Scary, isn’t it?” Stewart told me after the race. “Got some experience in those situations. I think that helps, at least being in that position. (Kurt is) a good guy. He’s come a long way, but he still gets in those positions where the heat of battle takes over. It’s understandable. That’s why we do what we do.

“Can’t blame him for it. You just know everybody is going to hang on every word he says, so you just try to help him out more than anything. After his penalty, he did an awesome job of locking back in. He was running the leaders down from the back. Pretty proud of him.”

Overall, Stewart was unhappy about the race unfolded. He called it “chaotic” and indicated there were too many factors affecting such a big race.

What specifically stuck out?

The scenarios and everything around it, drivers that shouldn’t even be in the Cup Series causing cautions, stupid stuff happening,” he said.

4. Harvick’s comeback

This will probably be lost to history, but let’s take a moment to appreciate Harvick’s remarkable feat at Phoenix.

After dominating the first stage, he had a tire go flat with two laps left in the stage and limped to pit road — which was actually fortunate timing, because the stage break saved him from going more laps down.

Then he fought his way to the free pass position —  and got it — despite a damaged car. Later, his team used strategy to put him in a favorable spot to be in front of the late wreck that would have ended his playoff hopes — but instead helped him sail through on points as his competitors crashed.

Harvick downplayed it all afterward, saying it was “just another day.” He said his only thoughts were trying to get back to the pits instead of worrying about the championship.

But the survival and focus of his team to persevere through a day that could have been a heartbreaker is one to remember — especially if he ends up winning his second title next week.

5. What if?

An intriguing scenario popped up late in the race with Kyle Busch and Almirola restarting side-by-side. If Busch allowed Almirola to beat him on the restart — and potentially for the win — then it would have eliminated Harvick, who is clearly Busch’s biggest competitor for the title.

Busch said it crossed his mind, but never seriously. He wasn’t going to give up a win, even if it means Harvick would beat him next week.

You always want to go up against the best of the best, and the strength of the season has been us three and the 22,” Busch said.

In addition, Busch said it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Had Almirola gotten by on the restart and Busch fallen in line, he predicted Brad Keselowski would have won instead.

“I don’t think the 10 was capable enough of being able to lead the race and not have somebody else pass him, know what I mean?” Busch said. “That would have been dumb.”

Crew chief Adam Stevens,  though, seemed like he wouldn’t have been disappointed had it happened.

“It wouldn’t have upset me if it did happen, but we weren’t going to do anything to make it happen,” Stevens said.

I’m not at all saying Busch should have done it — no real racer would give up a win, and it also would have been a huge scandal for not letting the race play out — but it’s an interesting scenario that only pops up in NASCAR’s unique playoff format.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR playoffs race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. Ford goodness’ sake

After yet another Ford-dominated weekend — Ford drivers combined to lead 321 of the 337 laps at Texas — Martin Truex Jr. brought up a solid point.

What if the Toyotas were crushing everyone like the Fords are now?

“If this is last year, they would all be complaining we’re too fast,” Truex said on pit road. “So I don’t know if I should do a (Brad) Keselowski and start whining about it or not. They’re really fast, and if we’re off just a little bit, we can’t run with them.”

That was the case at Texas, as none of the top Toyotas — or Chevrolets, for that matter — could hang with the Fords. And with only two weeks to go in the season, nothing is going to change before Homestead. It’s a Ford world now.

In all likelihood, that means Texas race winner Kevin Harvick is going to head to Miami as the heavy favorite for the championship. I’d even put Joey Logano above Truex and Kyle Busch at this point, since they just don’t have the raw speed the Fords seem to.

It’s not a given Harvick will win it all — Jimmie Johnson won his most recent championship as the fourth-fastest car among the title contenders — but the final four is going to feel more like “Harvick and Friends” than “The Big Three and Joey.”

Who is going to beat the No. 4 team aside from themselves?

“I feel as a team we’ve been strong down there,” crew chief Rodney Childers said. “Last year going into Homestead, I felt we didn’t have the cars to run for a championship, and we almost ran with them. So overall I think we have good cars right now.

“Everybody has done a great job. It’s just going to come down to executing and doing the best we can on pit road.”

I feel like I’ve written this a zillion times in 2018, but it’s still Harvick’s championship to lose.

2. Veteran move

Experience still matters sooooo much in today’s Cup Series, and that’s why drivers like Harvick can make the difference in crunch time situations.

Just look at Texas. Harvick got beaten by Ryan Blaney on a late restart, but he patiently caught back up and stuffed his car underneath Blaney’s in Turns 1 and 2 for what seemed like the winning pass. It was a pretty slick move that appeared easier than it was.

Then, on the overtime restart, Harvick switched up the strategy and started on the top — something no leader had chosen to do all race. If anyone doubted him, though, it worked — he easily cleared Blaney and sailed on to victory.

Blaney, to his credit, anticipated Harvick’s decision.

“I figured he wouldn’t make that move three times,” Blaney said. “We almost cleared him the first restart up top. Then I did on the second one. I figured he’d take the top.

“You get beat in one, you almost get beat the next one, you’re going to take the top, not restart on the bottom.”

Blaney can put that in his memory bank for the future, and that’s valuable. Those kind of scenarios can’t be simulated or pre-planned — only learned through actually being in those environments. But the winning veterans, like Harvick or Keselowski or Kyle Busch, already have those situations in their driver toolkits.

3. NASCAR mistake

Fans are continuing to light up NASCAR officials after Jimmie Johnson was mistakenly sent to the back of the field prior to the race.

For what it’s worth, NASCAR apologized in person to Chad Knaus and Hendrick representative Jeff Gordon, then told the media (through executive vice president Steve O’Donnell) the error was “unacceptable” and “disappointing.” O’Donnell vowed to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

It was certainly a big mistake, and this isn’t the first time NASCAR has goofed on a call. It seems to happen more often than anyone would like, which is inexcusable.

That said, I remember the not-too-distant past, when NASCAR officials never would have admitted fault on something like this and instead made up some B.S. reason to justify the call. They’d say something like, “Oh, that’s our policy now. You didn’t know that?” Seriously, I feel like that used to be practically commonplace. I hated that about covering this sport; it drove me nuts.

Now NASCAR has a tendency to admit fault and apologize when something like this happens. Yeah, the whole thing isn’t good, and acknowledging an error doesn’t erase the error — but at least it takes some of the sting out of it.

4. Texas needs help

It’s time to stop racing 1,000 miles per year at Texas Motor Speedway.

The repave and reconfiguration hasn’t made for good racing in the Cup Series, this time even drawing the ire of typically mild-mannered Chase Elliott.

Elliott said Texas is “a really frustrating racetrack ever since they ruined it two years ago” and added: “I don’t know what genius decided to pave this place or take the banking out of (Turns) 1 and 2, but not a good move for the entertainment factor, in my opinion.”

Texas wasn’t very entertaining before, and now it’s gotten worse. A controversial new rules package will arrive for Cup next year, which could make the racing better — but it’s also going to make it a lot longer.

With the cars going slower, the 3.5-hour average time of the Texas races could creep closer to four-hour territory. Is that really necessary?

Even Texas president Eddie Gossage, by all accounts a great promoter, can’t do much with the racing product recently. Gossage’s customers have told him they don’t want any races to be shortened — they want more miles for their dollars — but given the sparse attendance on Sunday, is that even a consideration anymore?

A 300-mile race could be a lot more entertaining at Texas, since it could promote urgency and take away the time where drivers can just log laps. Either that, or it could be a chance for NASCAR to try a timed, three-hour race — just as an experiment.

Neither of those ideas could make it any worse, right?

5. Points drying up in the desert

At first glance, it doesn’t look like NASCAR is in store for much drama at Phoenix. The points are blown wide open, with the two remaining spots held by drivers who are at least 25 points ahead of the cutoff.

Kurt Busch isn’t in a must-win situation, but close. He’d need a lot of help. Meanwhile, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer have to win Phoenix or will miss out on the final four.

But if there is a new winner among that group, things could get interesting very quickly. Kyle Busch and Truex would be in position to battle for the last spot on points, and they’re only separated by three at the moment.

“We might be racing the 78,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said. “We’ve got to out-run the 78 to make sure we’re OK, then hope there is a repeat winner or a non-(playoff) winner, I guess.”

If anyone can do it, the pick would be Elliott. He has the second-best average ever at Phoenix (6.8, second only to Alan Kulwicki) in his five career starts. He’s never finished lower than 12th there and has a second- and third-place result in his last two Phoenix races.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Martinsville playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s Round 3 opener at Martinsville…

1. What if….

I recently invented a special machine that allows me to travel between parallel universes and watch NASCAR races in two different dimensions. I just arrived back from the alternate universe where Joey Logano elected to race cleanly and NOT move Martin Truex Jr. for the win at Martinsville.

If you’re wondering how that decision went over with everyone, I brought the postrace transcript from Logano’s runner-up press conference from the parallel universe. Here it is.

REPORTER 1: “Joey, it looked like you had a chance to move Martin out of the way on that last lap and backed out of it. What was going through your mind there, knowing that may have cost you a chance to reach Homestead?”

LOGANO: “Look, I love winning. But clean driving is everything to me. If I can’t have the respect of my competitors, I don’t want to be doing this. Martin raced me fair and square, so I wanted to do the same in return.”

REPORTER 2: “That’s great, but what do you say to your fans and team after passing up a guaranteed shot to make the final four?”

LOGANO: “Martin is a classy guy. We attend each other’s charity events and he’s always so nice when my wife and I see him in the motorhome lot. I know we’ll be friends for years to come. It’s just not worth it to ruin that relationship. Heck, we’re supposed to go out on the lake together this week!”

REPORTER 3: “Joey, it looks like Twitter is lighting up with fans who say you must not want a championship badly enough if that’s how you race. How do you answer critics who say you get paid millions of dollars to do whatever it takes to win?”

LOGANO: “Have you ever been loudly booed by a crowd? Have you ever had a driver’s significant other tweet something negative about you? I mean, geez. Those things hurt. I don’t want any part of that. I would rather be a good guy and keep my reputation intact than do anything to make people think I’m a dirty driver.”


SPONSOR: “Joey, we like you a lot, but we’re paying $20 million a year for our car to win races and championships. We’re going to be moving on.”

LOGANO: “Aw, OK. I hope we can still be friends!”

2. Respect for Truex

Is it possible to agree with Logano’s last-lap move and still empathize with the obvious anger felt by Truex and Cole Pearn?


Truex had an incredible drive on Sunday. He had his qualifying time thrown out and started in the back, only to make it through the field — at Martinsville, no less! — and contend in the top five almost the entire day.

Truex fought his way toward the front, then patiently and cleanly worked Logano for the lead until making what seemed to be the winning pass.

Had Truex won, that would have been one of the highlights of his career: First short track win, a win-and-in ticket to Homestead, high stakes with his team getting ready to shut down and people loudly saying he’s the most vulnerable of the Big Three drivers to miss the final four.

Instead…Logano ran into him. And now making Homestead is no sure thing.

Frustrating! Super, super frustrating! Who wouldn’t be angry about that?

I still don’t blame Logano for making the move, but it’s completely understandable why Truex and his fans would be upset about it. When looking back in a couple weeks, that one moment could very well be the difference between competing for a championship and missing out altogether.

That said, as mad as he may be now, I see no scenario under which Truex retaliates. He’s just not that kind of driver. Even if he doesn’t make Homestead, Truex isn’t going to go out and ruin Logano’s championship race with a crash. He might race Logano hard, but Truex won’t pull a Matt Kenseth. No way.

3. What’s the code?

I’m not a driver, so this is just one interpretation of what’s OK on the last lap in NASCAR and what isn’t.

— If you can move someone out of the way and do it without ruining their day — i.e. without wrecking them or costing them more than a few positions — then it’s not only acceptable in NASCAR, but expected. And even encouraged by series officials.

— If you have a chance to door someone for a side-by-side finish, it’s a coin toss as to whether the other driver and the general fan base will think it’s an acceptable move. This often depends on the person initiating the contact.

— If you accidentally wreck the person while trying to move them (like Denny Hamlin on Chase Elliott), that is considered off-limits and there will be repercussions from both the other driver and fans.

— If you crash the person in a reckless-but-unintentional way (not necessarily on purpose, but understanding there will be full contact like Noah Gragson on Todd Gilliland), people may view it the same way as a blatant takeout.

— If you completely crash someone on purpose in order to win, that’s viewed as a dirty move that takes no talent and the fallout might stain your reputation for years.

Logano’s move on Truex — like any bump-and-run at a short track — is about the least offensive way to physically move someone and falls into the first category. That’s the type of move that can only happen in stock car racing and is a hallmark of what makes NASCAR fun. You’re not going to get that in Formula One, let’s put it that way.

4. Stuff that doesn’t matter

Over the last four weeks, I’ve taken a step back from NASCAR as I got off the road for the birth of my daughter. Though I’ve tried to follow the news as much as possible, there’s no doubt having a newborn at home makes it difficult to be as immersed in the NASCAR bubble as the weeks when I’m on the road at races.

And I’ve got to tell you: Looking at the big picture, it’s a bit alarming how the NASCAR world seems to get caught up in minor, tiny crap that doesn’t really matter and actually detracts from the sport.

One example is the race day morning inspection where qualifying times get thrown out. Here I am as a TV viewer who woke up excited to spend my Sunday watching some short-track racin’ across the country. I opened my Twitter app, and what was the big storyline of the day? Drivers getting their qualifying times disallowed, starting at the back for unapproved adjustments, crew members getting ejected, etc.

Seriously? This is what we’re talking about on playoff race day morning?? For a short track where aero doesn’t even really matter???

Officiating things that way certainly seems excessive. And yes, I know all about the reasons why they do it; I’m explaining the big-picture view of why it seems silly.

Another example was the race a couple weeks ago at Talladega. My wife was in the hospital that day and I was unable to pay much attention to the race, though we had it on in the background on mute.

When I tried catching up with what happened, the big controversy was apparently about whether NASCAR should have made the caution one lap shorter and whether officials should have thrown a yellow for a wreck on the last lap instead of having it finish under green.

Look, I completely understand why those are significant debates for those in the NASCAR industry and fans who are super passionate about the sport. But can you imagine how all this looks to casual fans or people who might want to give NASCAR a chance?

Headlines like Drivers criticize NASCAR for running them out of fuel with long caution! and Fans angry NASCAR chose drama over safety on last lap! just seem like such minor things from afar. As does Defending champion will start at the back today for failing laser scan on first try!

I’m not suggesting I have the solution to all this, because I don’t. And I’m not criticizing the media, certainly; when I get back at Texas next week, I’ll be all-in with the bubble once again.

But if these are the storylines, NASCAR has some real work to do. It cannot afford to be stuck on the minutiae, because there aren’t enough people left who care that much. Simplify things, focus on what really makes people want to spend their time on the sport (great racing and interesting driver storylines) and everyone will be much better off.

5. What’s next?

Logano taking a guaranteed spot at Homestead means at least one of the Big Three is going to have to point their way into the final four. After Martinsville, Truex and Kevin Harvick are tied for the last two spots, 25 points above the cutline.

I think both will be OK, as will Kyle Busch. Harvick is probably going to win Texas, Phoenix or both; Busch might win one of those as well. That means Truex, with a pair of top-five finishes, should be just fine.

Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch are already facing big points deficits after just one week. Are any of them going to win a race in this round? I actually think it’s more likely a non-playoff type like a Denny Hamlin or a Brad Keselowski will win, which would open up an addition points position for a Big Three member.

So as it turns out, perhaps all of the Big Three will make it to Homestead after all — just maybe not exactly how we expected.