NASCAR has evolved into a big money sport with teams having multimillion-dollar garages and hundreds of employees focused on elevating their cars and drivers to the top.
It’s become an industry that is almost unsustainable for the one-car, mom-and-pop teams of the past. But there’s always an exception, always an underdog who beats the odds.
That just happens to be Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing, a small-time team, comparatively speaking, based out of Denver with about 40 employees.
“It’s almost impossible what they’ve done with how dominant multi-car teams have been the past 20 years,” Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said. “You look at them as a team who’s not supposed to be there and then you go, ‘They’re lucky.’ Well, all of a sudden, they’ve got six, seven top-10s and you go, ‘They’re not lucky. They’re good.’
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“Hats off to them.”
It’s certainly been something to watch from the outside, seeing a one-car team hang with the powerhouses of Hendrick, Penske and Stewart-Haas. After all, who doesn’t like a good underdog story?
“Underdog, sleeper … those are totally fair for us,” Truex said. “But we have as much support as any team, and we are given everything we need to be competitive. We go out there every week with a car that’s capable of winning.”
It would have been hard to imagine Furniture Row Racing ever saying something like that realistically not too long ago. Barney Visser founded the team in 2005, and it was six years before it recorded a top-10 finish. Later that season, Regan Smith surprised everyone by taking the checkered flag at Darlington in May 2011.
Furniture Row added another signature moment to the team’s history when it brought in 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch to drive the car late in 2012 and into 2013.
Busch helped Furniture Row take another step, consistently contending in 2013 and earning the team’s first trip to the Chase. But Busch bolted to Stewart-Haas after that season, leaving Furniture Row searching for a replacement.
Enter Truex, a driver who had the makings of being a budding star with two Xfinity championships early in his career. After struggling in his inaugural season with Furniture Row, Truex is now flourishing in a similar fashion as Busch did.
“He’s certainly one of the most raw-talented drivers out there,” said Joe Garone, Furniture Row Racing’s general manager since the team’s inception 11 years ago.
“He’s a smart driver. He assesses risk versus reward very well, and is very mindful of when to take a risk. He’s just very smart about how he goes about racing.”
However, for as savvy on the track as Truex is known for in racing circles, he still hasn’t become a household name. He doesn’t mind staying in the background, letting his driving do the talking so to speak.
That’s unusual for the sport, where most drivers and teams seek attention to appease sponsors and owners.
As Gossage said, “Martin isn’t a quote machine, he’s not going to entertain the press room like someone like Clint Bowyer is. He’ll always kind of be in the background because he’s not very colorful or flamboyant like that, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a great race car driver. He is.”
Truex has shown it this season, stacking up a seemingly unending list of top-10 runs that has given him the second-most points in the series to date.
He opened the season with seven consecutive top-10 runs, the last coming at TMS’ spring stop. Truex struggled the following week at Bristol, coming in 29th, but has regained his top-10 streak the past three races.
And he’s flirted with victories along the way. His best chance might have come Saturday night at Kansas when a late pit-stop gamble taking only fuel backfired. Truex ended up with a ninth-place finish after leading a race-high 95 laps.
But Truex can take solace in the fact that his team has established itself as a contender on a weekly basis. That surely won’t be its only chance at a win this year.
“We’re not where we want to be yet, and there’s room to grow,” Truex said. “But we look forward to each and every weekend and we look forward to taking that next step.”
Not just for a win, either. A championship run isn’t too far-fetched for this team. That’s been the goal from Day 1, and seems more realistic under the new knockout-style Chase format.
The Chase is set up more like March Madness, where all drivers essentially fend for themselves as the field dwindles. That benefits a driver such as Truex, who drives with that mindset regardless.
“Absolutely it does, and the effort we put forth is 100 percent toward competing for a championship,” Garone said. “That’s what our focus is — competing for the Chase and winning races.”
Winning a championship as a one-car team has been done in the past. Alan Kulwicki is the most recent, pulling off the rare feat in 1992.
But it presents more challenges nowadays.
Hendrick, for instance, has a stable of drivers who can share information and tips they learn on a given track.
Just imagine the amount of knowledge dropped between Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. each weekend.
At Penske, there’s no question Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski work with each other to get the most out of their cars.
Furniture Row simply doesn’t have that luxury. Yes, it has a partnership with Richard Childress Racing, paying it for engines, chassis and technical information.
Those two are helpful enough for each other, but it’s nothing like being part of a multi-car team.
“It’s harder because you don’t have that benchmark to compare yourself to,” crew chief Cole Pearn said. “Sometimes that could be a negative because it could lead you to make excuses, but we don’t do that. We try to maximize our partnership with RCR as best we can, sharing notes and running the same simulations, and then go try to win races every week. We feel like we should be contending every race.”
Seeing Truex and Furniture Row Racing among the top teams on a weekly basis is a refreshing feeling in a sport that’s become “dream team” oriented.
Maybe it won’t get to Victory Lane or even get one of the coveted spots in the Chase field, but underdogs have a tendency to stick around, although it’s becoming more and more difficult to label Furniture Row as an “underdog.”
“I’ll make it simple — we feel like we’re really good right now,” Truex said, “But we want to be great. We’re trying to figure out how to get there, and we’ve got the people to do it and make it happen.”
The truth about Truex
The No. 78 Furniture Row crew, led by driver Martin Truex Jr., has taken a huge leap forward in 2015.
10 Top-10 finishes for Truex in 11 races. In 2014, he ran 36 races and finished with five top 10s.
127 Laps led, compared with just one lap in 2014.
2 Ranking in championship standings; last year he finished 24th.