Championship 4 crew chiefs reflect on title opportunity

By Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service

Homestead, Fla. – When you’re a single-car team, competing for NASCAR’s biggest prize, you have to work smart and do things a bit differently.

That’s where Furniture Row’s Cole Pearn comes in. The first Canadian NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crew chief graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Waterloo (Ontario). A former late model driver and three-time Canadian go-kart champion, his preferred participation sport is beer league hockey. It meshes perfectly with the Rocky Mountain lifestyle of his Denver-based race team.

More importantly, Pearn, 33, has meshed seamlessly as crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., putting the No. 78 in position to challenge the best from Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing for NASCAR supremacy in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 Championship Round race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Compared to the pit box resume of Jeff Gordon’s crew chief Alan Gustafson or Kyle Busch’s crew chief Rodney Childers, who seeks a second consecutive title with Kevin Harvick, Pearn might seem out of his element. But Furniture Row general manager Joe Garone points out that Pearn is hardly a novice.

In fact, the London, Ontario native was an engineer for Kevin Harvick’s car at Richard Childress Racing before accepting a supporting role at Furniture Row and serving as lead engineer under crew chief Todd Berrier. He’s been part of the steady progression at Furniture Row, galvanizing his team and acting decisively.

“I’m going to take credit for Cole,” Garone says. “Early on, I told Barney (team owner Visser) that this kid could be as good as there is in NASCAR as a crew chief. He’s driven, he’s a mechanical engineer and he just gets it. He understands processes and procedures, but he also understands when you just have to get down in the grease and flog when you have to get a car done. He sees both sides of it. I’m just thrilled to see him take the reins and be able to have success.”

The opportunity presented by Sunday’s Championship Round race, in his rookie season as crew chief, is definitely not lost on Pearn.

“Our shop foreman this week told me that the last time he’d been in this kind of position was 1992 and that really puts it in perspective,” Pearn says. “You never know when the next time (will be). Especially with this (championship) format, anything can happen to take you out. I’m definitely just trying to enjoy the moment, stay focused and make the most of it.”

Adam Stevens, hand-picked by Kyle Busch to become his pit boss, has been on a similar trajectory since his driving career flamed out. He studied mechanical engineering at Ohio University before joining forces with Petty Enterprises in 2002. Lured to Joe Gibbs Racing, he teamed with Busch to win 19 XFINITY Series races (and finish top five in 46 of 52 starts) in 2013-14.

He could never have imagined how his first season as a Sprint Cup crew chief would unfold.

“It’s been a wild year, starting with Kyle’s accident (at Daytona),” says Stevens, 37, who paired with drivers David Ragan, Matt Crafton and Erik Jones before Busch returned to win four of his first nine starts. “We started off with high hopes … then, before we even left Daytona, that was all taken away from us. To battle back from that, with all the wins that we’ve had along the way and good runs in competitive cars, is remarkable at this stage.

“I’ve been to Homestead the last three years in the championship hunt running for (the) XFINITY Series owner’s championship, so I know a little bit about what that’s about. And I had championship experience as a race engineer on the 20 Cup car in 2005 with Zippy (Greg Zipadelli) and Tony (Stewart). I’m not a complete stranger to it, but still, up there on the box and doing it for yourself is a whole different animal.”

Busch knows he might not be racing for a championship if not for Stevens.

“It was tough to be at home, lying in my bed and watching other guys race my car,” he said. “I can’t say enough about Adam Stevens and the teamwork, being able to keep everyone together and focused and motivated for my return.”

While Busch and Stevens may be only 24 races into their Sprint Cup alliance, Alan Gustafson comes at Sunday’s race with a completely different perspective. With 11 years as a Sprint Cup crew chief, he knows Sunday will be his final race with Jeff Gordon.

Gustafson, 40, says there is “added incentive to send Jeff out on top, as we believe he deserves – and we’re working hard to do that. Jeff has been a huge part of the sport … and a huge part of our company and our success.”

Of course there’s also Gustafson’s personal quest for his first Cup title.

“It would be a huge thing for me to win a championship,” he says. “It’s been my goal my whole career. I’ve been in this building, the 5/24 shop (at Hendrick) since its inception, and that’s been the goal. I think it would set a nice culture or legacy standard to propel us into the future with Chase (Elliott). You never know if you’ll get a chance to be back in this position again.”

Childers is fortunate enough to have that encore opportunity with Harvick. They won at Homestead to capture the Sprint Cup crown in their first season together at Stewart-Haas Racing, and they’ve been dominant at times in 2015.

“We’ve had fast cars all year,” says Childers, 39, who has finished in the top 10 in more than half (36 of 71) of his races with Harvick. “It’s just been a fun season, and you know, we look forward to the opportunity of going down there and at least having a shot at it and being able to do something special.”

Harvick, who benefitted from Childers’ decision to take four tires late in last year’s title-deciding race, appreciates his crew chief’s judgment in critical situations.

“I think the confidence between myself and Rodney is, obviously, pretty high,” Harvick says. “I believe in what he does. I believe in what my team does and, I think, that in the car, they believe in what I do. The chemistry on this team is so special. Through the Chase, I just believe that every step of the way, it’s been just (a series) of character-building moments that have made us stronger.”

Image: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images

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