In a nondescript section of northeast Denver dotted by low-slung office buildings, industrial parks and warehouses, the best team in NASCAR’s premier series was toiling away again today.
And possibly vacillating on whether it was on the verge of implosion.
Battling the inherent challenges of being two time zones and roughly 1,600 miles removed from the epicenter of NASCAR, Furniture Row Racing is making its transition from underdog to powerhouse seem a lot easier than it apparently is.
“I feel like a lot of times we’re hanging on by a thread, but it’s just the way it is,” crew chief Cole Pearn said Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway after Martin Truex Jr.’s latest dominant Cup victory.
“It’s tough in Colorado. We’ve got to load a day early most weeks, so we work closely with (Joe Gibbs Racing) and obviously they’ve got a day ahead of us, so our Monday and Tuesdays are pretty much hair on fire most weeks, so it’s amazing sometimes I feel like we make it to the racetrack, but when we do, we’re generally good.”
So good, it might be time to ask if team owner Barney Visser has stumbled upon the secret to success simply by wanting to keep his team’s shop close enough to walk through from his Colorado home whenever he pleased.
Ignore the logistical problems that might create (such as team members arriving at the crack of dawn to keep with an Eastern Time-driven industry schedule).
Not only is Furniture Row Racing doing things unlike any other team in NASCAR, it’s succeeding unlike any other, too.
Truex has 13 stage wins – more than three times as many as second-ranked Kyle Busch (four) — and 28 playoff points (12 more than Jimmie Johnson). He is one point behind Kyle Larson for top spot in the regular-season standings, which is significant because the regular-season championship is worth 15 playoff points (second through 10 in the regular-season standings also award playoff points, starting from 10 for runner-up down to one for 10th).
With a few more wins and stage victories, it’s conceivable that Truex could enter the playoffs with at least 60 points – the maximum available in a race with two stages – to carry through the first three rounds of the playoffs. That would be hefty insurance against a poor finish or engine failure (which eliminated Truex at Talladega Superspeedway last year) even in the third round.
Barring a total collapse in the final 10 races, Truex would be close to a cinch to reach the championship round at Miami if his No. 78 Toyota averaged decent finishes even without winning (at least one slot among the final four drivers will be claimed on points, and Kyle Busch advanced last year by a six-point margin).
Though he hailed Saturday’s car as “probably the best I’ve had in my career,” Truex, the native of the Jersey Shore who speaks with a North Carolina Piedmont twang, also deserves credit.
“I think he’s peaking right now, and for the last year I’ve thought he was as good as anyone in the garage,” Visser said. “Now I think he’s better than anyone in the garage. You saw what he did on that last restart, putting it down in Turn 1. He’s just that good.
“Whatever it is, I think he was always better than people thought he was, and he’s not driving for money, he’s driving for fun. That’s his game.”
Visser, 68, mostly seems to be in this for the competitive fun, too, resorting to team ownership after a brief career as a Late Model and Modified driver.
Though the team’s 2015-17 results surely have brought widespread exposure for his furniture chain (“You can’t find a more fun way to spend your advertising dollars,” he said in a 2008 USA TODAY interview shortly after starting the team), Visser has spent his millions on the team because he is a car enthusiast with a passion for manufacturing (his Visser Precision company machines state-of-the-art materials with aerospace and military applications).
A bluntly spoken Vietnam War veteran who shies from doing interviews, Visser’s independent streak is the foundation of the team. Its soul seems to rest mostly within Pearn, the unassuming Canadian whose judicious but acutely timed and worded tweets often are loaded with iconoclastic subtext and humor.
Usually clad in a black T-shirt with white lettering (unlike fellow crew chiefs typically clad in colorful collared shirts loaded with sponsor logos), the simple wardrobe embodies Pearn’s disarmingly loose but outspoken nature.
Pearn’s unthreatening style helped ensure a seamless move to Toyota Racing Development last year, because he immediately established the trust of Joe Gibbs Racing (which builds FRR’s chassis and shares information as a partner team).
Pearn enjoys tweeting victory selfies of the team, which one insider playfully described as having a “pirate vibe” because it’s a bunch of guys who wear black and sport scruffy looks – and who also have hijacked the series’ new wrinkle of incentivized racing.
Yes, Truex’s commanding lead in stage wins might be simply a byproduct of having the fastest car in the majority of races, but there are signs that it’s also by design. He has a habit of taking the lead late in stages (at Kentucky, it was with 12 laps left in Stage 1).
It’s enough to wonder whether it’s an overlooked positive of working far away from the pervasive groupthink among the teams based in the Charlotte area – where trade secrets get swapped over breakfast and lunch between employees who frequently migrate between teams located in close proximity.
That doesn’t happen in Furniture Row’s Denver outpost.
“We’ve got a group out there that we’ve been together for a while, and we’ve been through the lows and we’ve sucked, and we’ve had those moments where it’s tested all of us,” said Pearn, who was the team’s engineer during Truex’ 24th-place finish in the 2014 points.
“But when you stick together and you’re all out there, you’re not worrying about somebody running down the street to go to a different place for a better deal. It just breeds a lot of chemistry. It breeds family, actually.”
That was manifested in Truex’s first season when Visser told him to take a few weeks off after girlfriend Sherry Pollex was diagnosed with ovarian cancer (she recently had a recurrence that kept her from attending Saturday’s win).
“(Visser) said, ‘We’re here for you, this is your team. You’re going to drive this car,’” Truex said. “That meant a lot to me, and not long after that, we got things turned around. I’m sure that was part of it, just that belief that he had in me. This is a really awesome guy. I’m really lucky to be working for him, and I’m going to make sure I do all I can to get this team going in the right direction.
“He gives our guys all they need, all the tools, all the things they need to make these cars fast, and he gives them a great work environment in Denver.”
Truex rarely visits the shop but hears about its frenetic pace often during daily communication via phone calls and texts with Pearn.
“He tells me when things are kind of crazy and when things are going crazy,” Truex said. “But we have a great bunch. I can’t tell you how good our guys are at just making sure they do all the things right. They’re perfectionists, really.
“I think sometimes Cole makes them burn a little midnight oil to get the cars where he wants them, to get things the way he likes it, and sometimes they work a little more than they expected to, but they all do a great job, and they’re willing to put in the hours, and right now it’s showing up.
“It’s pretty awesome to see, and it’s definitely cool doing it in Denver out there all by ourselves.”
Brad Keselowski’s Saturday night rant about the need to redesign the Gen 6 was jarring when juxtaposed with the debut of the low downforce rules two years earlier at Kentucky Speedway. It resulted in perhaps the most uniformly positive driver reviews of a race in NASCAR history.
But Keselowski now seems eerily prescient with two tweets posted immediately in that race’s afterglow.
It certainly seems the Team Penske driver foresaw some of his own criticism Saturday night, and it’s worth reconsidering the primary point he made: Teams had little time to prepare for the downforce package announced just a few weeks ahead of that July 2015 race in Kentucky.
Changing the rules every week isn’t advisable or feasible. But if there were a way to keep the brainpower in check at the shop (where computer simulations run abated to build the most highly engineered stock cars in history) while allowing some unharnessed ingenuity in race weekends, the results might be favorable.
The downforce stripped from chopping the spoiler to 2.3 inches this season is regained as teams apply mammoth engineering manpower to optimizing the underbody, undermining the good intentions of the low downforce initiative.
The July 2015 race at Kentucky put NASCAR firmly on a course of low downforce. The 2016 rules mimicked the package from that race, and this year’s rules were intended to go even further.
But as NASCAR senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell noted on last week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast, it’s brought mixed reviews behind the wheel. In their annual meeting with the sanctioning body at Daytona, the consensus among drivers was that the lower downforce last year made a big difference, but the feedback has been less positive this year.
It’s because even when the fastest cars reach the top five, they stall out trying to break through the imperceptible aerodynamic “bubble” that buffers the path of trailing cars.
While making the cars more difficult to drive put the stars’ fates back in their own hands, solving the aerodynamic quandary remains the greatest challenge. As NASCAR begins meetings in earnest this month to formulate a technologically enhanced Gen 7 car that hopefully could make its debut by 2020, this must be the primary goal.
It wasn’t on the level of Conor McGregor declaring he would chomp on an opponent’s flesh while his “little gazelle friends” watched, but it was refreshing to hear Truex’s brusque answer when asked about Keselowski’s comments.
“He was probably just mad because he got wrecked,” Truex said in the most curt answer of his postrace interviews.
This isn’t to intimate there is some sort of feud brewing between Keselowski and Truex, but this is a small example of the swagger that subtly could go a long way to rebuilding rivalries. It shouldn’t be striking when a driver so plainly (and rather innocuously) calls out a rival, but it unfortunately is in the overly collegial world of Cup (an issue raised by NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte earlier this year).
There’s no need for MMA-style blustering in orchestrated news conferences, but Truex’s dig was a reminder there’s little harm in clashing with a competitor.
Darrell Wallace Jr. came up one spot short of a steady four-race progression into the top 10 for Richard Petty Motorsports. After a 26th at Pocono, 19th at Michigan and 15th at Daytona, an 11th at Kentucky still was impressive.
“I damn sure wanted a top 10 today to keep the momentum going,” he said. “Hopefully, I made a name for myself.”
As the first African-American driver to race in Cup in more than a decade, there was inherent national exposure surrounding his replacing Aric Almirola in the No. 43 Ford. But the best part of his stint with Richard Petty Motorsports is that virtually all of the focus has been on his impressive acclimation to Cup.
“The biggest thing we need is if sponsors are watching, and they see, ‘Hey this kid can do it,’” Wallace said. “That’s the hard thing. I think everyone in the garage can back me up on that.”
He clearly won over his peers with the response to his tweet Monday morning, and Ford Performance unquestionably would like to see him continue racing.
But Wallace’s future is hazy with Roush Fenway Racing having shuttered his Xfinity team. When Almirola returns from a fractured back — possibly as early as this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – Wallace will be headed to the sidelines for an indeterminate timeframe.
“I’ve got a lot of people in my corner,” Wallace said. “It’s just a matter of what comes at us at the right time. The best opportunity will present itself when the time is right.”
Even if it’s a hiatus that lasts months, there still could be hope. If Almirola leaves the No. 43 next season, RPM already might have found its replacement.
The announcement of the Quaker State title sponsorship of Kentucky’s race being extended through 2022 was another example of business-to-business deals being the best stabilizer for racing sponsorships.
Through its Quaker State and Pennzoil brands, Shell now has title sponsorships at Kentucky and Las Vegas Motor Speedway through 2022, and it announced an extension of its sponsorship of Joey Logano’s No. 22 Ford earlier this year through 2023.
While there’s an R&D component to its business relationships with Ferrari and Team Penske, these are sponsorships that essentially pay for themselves.
The sponsorship of Penske ensures Shell’s engine lubricants are used in more than 200,000 trucks of Penske Truck Leasing and the 300 dealerships of Penske Automotive Group (which annually sells a few hundred thousand cars). That brings in major revenue of millions of gallons sold.
The deals with the Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks of Kentucky and Las Vegas help generate a similar return on investment, said Heidi Massey-Bong, a senior business advisor at Shell, because it helps foster relationships with Sonic Automotive, the automotive dealer that shares a founder (O. Bruton Smith) with SMI. While there aren’t guarantees of Sonic buying Shell products, “it opens the door” to sales, Massey-Bong said.
“We find significant (return on investment), mostly from the business to business from these organizations,” she said. “R&D is the heart and soul of what we do in racing, but when we are able to connect that with key customers, and SMI and Penske being two of those, where we can sell our product, that’s an absolute home run.”
Though the business helps justify the sponsorships, the brands also have benefited from greater recognition. “We have jumped feet first into this,” she said. “It’s a validation of the attendance we see at races. We know media ratings are down, and we’re as concerned as others, but it’s still a good spend. We know that the core of the people watching and putting that much investment into it are true enthusiasts who care about what motor oil goes in their cars. That’s our audience.”
With Matt Kenseth apparently forced out at Joe Gibbs Racing because of sponsorship (per teammate Kyle Busch in a SiriusXM interview Friday), the questions are what options remain for the 2003 champion. Kenseth, 45, is in peak physical condition since taking up bike riding over the past couple of years, and he doesn’t want to end his career with possibly his worst season in 10 years.
But Kenseth won’t take a middling ride to stay in Cup. There is at least one opening at Hendrick Motorsports, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. offered a general endorsement of his good friend’s ability. But if there’s no room there, it is difficult to foresee a high-caliber landing spot for Kenseth.
Just as with former teammate Greg Biffle this season, the possibility looms that Kenseth won’t exit on his own terms, barring a remarkable turnaround for the No. 20 Toyota.
In nine races since having his Richmond victory essentially voided for a postrace violation, Joey Logano has two top 10s, and both were because of well-executed strategy and racecraft. In the first nine races of the season, he had seven top 10s (including five top fives).
The speed has been lacking in the No. 22. Yet drawing a line directly to the Richmond penalty might be reductive. While the punishment was major, garage insiders say it wasn’t necessarily a game-changing element.
Maybe the slump instead could be traced to Kansas Speedway, where Logano qualified second and was running well before a brake rotor failure triggered a fiery crash that also collected Almirola and Danica Patrick. He hasn’t seemed as fast since then.