Tuesday’s news that defending series champion Furniture Row Racing will cease operations after the 2018 season will send shockwaves reverberating through NASCAR for months and possibly years to come.
What led to this stunning development happen and what’s next?
Here are some cracks at answering the myriad questions prompted by the shutdown of the No. 78 Toyota:
Why is Furniture Row Racing closing after saying it wasn’t an option less than a month ago?
A: The situation grew much more dire than the team had hoped since 5-hour Energy announced its impending departure in mid-July, which is a suboptimal time to begin a sponsorship hunt to fill an eight-figure budget hole.
By the third quarter, most companies already have their marketing budgets set for the following year, and NASCAR sponsorship deals often require an enormous lead time of several months anyway. Furniture Row Racing scrambled for money, leaning on help from NASCAR and other teams in the search, but there wasn’t enough time.
To continue fielding a team at a cost of likely more than $20 million annually, team owner Barney Visser would have “to borrow money to continue as a competitive team, and I’m not going to do that.”
Why didn’t Visser just return to writing the checks with his furniture company serving as the de-facto primary sponsor of the team?
A: That worked for roughly the first decade of the team’s existence (though it ran full time in only one of its first five seasons). Even as recently as when Truex made the championship round for the first time, every race in 2015 was sponsored by Visser’s Furniture Row/Denver Mattress companies.
But Bass Pro Shops and Auto Owners Insurance picked up nearly half the season on Truex’s car in ’16, and Furniture Row reached peak sponsorship in ’17, filling nearly two-thirds of the races with outside sponsorship on the No. 78 while adding a second car in ’17 with 5-hour Energy as a sponsor for Erik Jones.
After Corporate America began footing the bill, it obviously became harder for Visser to open his wallet again. The first major sign was when the team shuttered the second team after a single season with Jones, moving the 5-hour Energy sponsorship to Truex’s car and essentially removing Visser’s companies from its funding mechanisms.
Visser, 69, has a family that doesn’t seem as passionate about racing as its patriarch, and he also gained a fresh perspective on life after suffering a heart attack a few weeks before winning the 2017 title.
“I had a wake-up call last year and while I feel great, I need to make the best decisions that will have an impact on myself and my family,” he said. “My wife Carolyn and the entire Visser family have been supportive of our racing journey and it’s been one incredible ride for all of us.”
Did the team’s relationship with Toyota Racing Development technical partner and rival Joe Gibbs Racing have an impact?
A: Yes. According to the release announcing its impending closure, Furniture Row Racing cited “the rising costs of continuing a team alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing” as a reason it couldn’t bridge its 2019 budget shortfall. Beyond the financials, it’s difficult to discern whether underlying tension also was a factor.
All indications publicly were that the crew chiefs and drivers got along well (aside from that flareup at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year), but it was trickier to get a read on the team owners. While there were no signs that the relationship was frosty, there also weren’t been many indications of chumminess, either.
Mixing business clientele and competition has proven complicated in NASCAR’s cutthroat world when the client begins outrunning its supplier (look no further than the contentious final two seasons of the alliance between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing). Joe Gibbs Racing began supplying chassis to Furniture Row in 2016, and Truex has 16 victories since then while regularly outperforming Gibbs’ drivers last year.
What’s next for Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn?
A: Multiple reports have both headed to Joe Gibbs Racing together next season. Given their success, it would be natural for them to be a package deal, though Pearn has expressed some misgivings about his first go-round with living and working in North Carolina as a NASCAR team employee.
Can the team still contend for a championship in 2018?
A: If it makes the championship round for the third time in four years, the narrative would continue of being the underdog that consistently overcomes major adversity (just look at the 2017 season in particular).
But it’s never faced a situation as turbulent as 61 team members looking for work while also building race cars. Analyst Steve Letarte said on NASCAR America that he’ll be surprised if the team remains completely intact through the end of the season as employees without contracts leave to get a head-start on 2019.
Letarte also believes the team should fully support the job-searching – even if it has an impact during the week on race preparation. “I think if you try to put the playoffs in front of the livelihoods of those 61 employees in Colorado, then it’s an insensitive situation,” he said.
What does it say about NASCAR’s team business model?
A: That the exorbitant amount of money required to field a championship-caliber Cup franchise is increasingly disproportionate to the shrinking sponsorship pool available to teams.
The problem is that simple. The solution is not.
Does this kill the chances of a successful team ever being based outside of North Carolina again?
A: It shouldn’t, but it certainly dims the prospects of lightning striking twice. It was only Visser’s force of will and love of the Rockies that based Furniture Row Racing in Colorado in the first place, but its locale might have played a role in the unlikeliest of success stories.
Setting up shop 1,600 miles from NASCAR’s Charlotte hub ensured that talent stayed put along with the brilliant trade secrets cooked up by Pearn. It also provided a rooting interest in a market without a major NASCAR-sanctioned racetrack – something that Visser hoped other teams eventually would emulate.
But instead of being a trend-setter, its Denver headquarters will become the requiem for a stock-car Cinderella tale that ended much too soon.