Although auto racing is exponentially safer than it used to be, there will always be an element of life and death to the sport.
Sunday’s I Love NY 355 at The Glen was another poignant reminder of that.
The race was won by the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team, perhaps as much by crew chief Cole Pearn as by driver Martin Truex Jr.
That’s no disrespect for Truex, who did a great job, but it was Pearn who orchestrated the race-winning strategy for Truex to slow way down in the closing laps to save fuel.
Truex let Brad Keselowski pass him first and then Ryan Blaney, but both Ford drivers had to stop in the final laps for fuel allowing Truex to re-take the point and hold on for his fourth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup victory of the season.
From a strategic standpoint, the race was a brilliant one for Pearn.
From an emotional standpoint, it was a gut punch.
On Thursday, Pearn’s childhood best friend, Jacob Damen, age 35, died unexpectedly, leaving Pearn devastated.
“It’s been probably the hardest week of my life, so … I don’t know,” Pearn said. “It’s not over yet. I lost my best friend growing up this week. He caught a random bacterial infection from a cut and basically died in a day.
“It’s not like he was sick. I talked to him the day before,” Pearn said. “They were coming to Michigan next weekend. So, it just doesn’t seem real still. He’s got two little boys that are not going to know their dad pretty much.”
Despite his obvious and understandable grief, Pearn had a job to do and he did to perfection under challenging circumstances.
“We’ll get through this,” Pearn said after the race. “We’re lucky to have unbelievable friends and support and family around. We’ll make sure everybody is alright. But he was a heart-of-gold guy. I don’t know. I still haven’t come to terms with it, to be honest.”
Pearn wasn’t the only one touched by emotion on the day.
The last time Truex won before Watkins Glen was at Kentucky Speedway last month. Missing from that race was his long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, who was hospitalized and being treated for a recurrence of cancer.
Sunday at Watkins Glen, Pollex was back by Truex’s side.
“My good luck charm is back,” Truex said after hugging Pollex in Victory Lane.
“It’s pretty cool. We had a rough couple of weeks,” said Pollex as she fought back tears. “… I’m so happy that I’m here. It’s my first weekend back. It was a great present. It was awesome.”
Life and death are never far away in this sport. Just ask the men and women of Furniture Row Racing.