Analysis: Furniture Row Racing’s demise leaves lingering questions

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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.

New Hampshire winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickHe no longer has to answer the question of when is he going to win (same for Stewart-Haas Racing). Now the question is if this will lead to a string of wins for the No. 4 team, which has shown speed but not been able to capitalize on it.

Parity — Kevin Harvick marked the seventh different winner in the last seven Cup races, the longest streak of the season.

Ryan Newman First, he was in a backup car and had to start at the rear on a track where passing is difficult. Then, he had a broken coil wire that sapped his engine’s power with about 100 laps to go. His team recovered and he finished seventh for his fifth top 10 in the last six races. Also, he climbed into a playoff spot.

Matt DiBenedetto His fifth-place finish was his third top-10 result in the last five races. Good progress for Leavine Family Racing.

LOSERS

Jimmie JohnsonBack-to-back 30th-place finishes have dropped the seven-time champion out of a playoff spot. He’s never missed NASCAR’s postseason — and is the only driver who can say that he’s been in the Chase/playoffs every year since its inception in 2004. Will that streak continue? Or will it end this year?

Richard Childress Racing — RCR cars finished 37th (Daniel Hemric) and 32nd (Austin Dillon). Hemric’s day ended after contact from Daniel Suarez. Dillon blew a right front tire early and that damaged his car.

Hendrick Motorsports — Alex Bowman’s team went through two cars before Sunday’s race. William Byron had to go to a backup because of an incident in practice. Mechanical issues caused Jimmie Johnson to finish 30th and Chase Elliott to place 29th. Bowman placed 14th and Byron led the way with a 12th-place finish. The best thing about the weekend for Hendrick Motorsports is it is over.

Kyle Larson — Two crashes within the last 100 laps made for a bad day Sunday.

With an inadvertent but legal deke, Erik Jones rallies for third

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LOUDON, N.H. – With critical points hanging in the balance for a playoff bid, Erik Jones thought he screwed up Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Instead, he inadvertently might have stumbled across a new strategy for keeping opponents guessing on pit stops.

During the final caution with 35 laps remaining, Jones swerved to the right back on the racing surface at the last minute, driving over the pit lane commitment box.

Jones began fuming over the team radio, but he eventually was informed there would be no penalty from NASCAR, which changed its rule governing pit entry over the past two seasons. Drivers with four tires below the boundary must enter the pits; Jones had only his left-sides below.

Two tires below once would have committed a car to the pits at tracks such as New Hampshire and shorter, and that caused some confusion on Twitter (NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell clarified the call).

But it raises an interesting point: Should every driver who is committed to staying on track fake a move to the pits by rolling over the commitment box as Jones did?

“I don’t think NASCAR would appreciate that very much, and I’m glad we didn’t get a penalty,” Jones said with a smile. “But it’s definitely an interesting situation. I forgot (what) the rules actually said, and I think many people probably were surprised by that.

“So I think you might see some more faking out. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Crew chief Chris Gayle was sure Jones would escape punishment after he watched the replay and saw the No. 20 Toyota had at least two wheels above the inside boundary.

“I was like, ‘Oh, we’re good,’ because you’ve got to have all four below the box, and he kind of split it,” Gayle said. “I think he didn’t think about it. They say it in the driver’s meeting all the time now, and you’ve got to pay attention, but most everywhere it’s all four below the orange box.”

After restarting in second behind race winner Kevin Harvick, Jones hung on for third behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin and punctuated a race in which he overcame contact with two drivers and a speeding penalty.

He started fourth and catapulted into the lead with a two-tire call by Gayle on Lap 48. Jones finished second in the first stage and then made contact with Alex Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolet while exiting his pit stall on Lap 111. That necessitated another stop dropping him to 28th as the last car on the lead lap.

“We had contact here on pit road (in the 2017 race), and it ended our day, blew a tire on the restart, so we couldn’t risk that,” Jones said. “We couldn’t have a DNF, so coming down to fix it was the right thing to do. We had to make that right and put ourselves back out there, but it was up and down.”

While battling through the field 20 laps later, Jones made contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who brought out a Lap 138 yellow by hitting the wall with a flat tire from the damage. Jones incurred a speeding penalty entering the pits during the caution.

But he restarted in 11th and steadily marched forward during the second half. He was in fifth when the yellow flew the last time, allowing Gayle to keep his car on track and restart beside Harvick.

“That was the good thing,” Jones said. “The (car) had enough speed to get back up there and get in contention. I think at the end with some clean air, we could be in (Harvick’s) spot, I think we were just as fast as him there the run before, so we have to keep putting ourselves up there, and eventually it’s going to work out, but a good testament to our team, just the way we came back today.”

With six races remaining in the regular season, he is ranked 14th and is 28 points above the cutoff line after entering New Hampshire in 16th with only a two-point cushion. But when other bubble drivers had trouble Sunday, it made Gayle’s strategy decisions simpler.

“It wasn’t as bad today because you start seeing other guys having problems that we were racing in the points,” Gayle said. “So when they all started having trouble, and we’re at the back, I’m like OK, this makes it a little bit easier. We can just do something and go for the win here at the end.”

Jones seems on the verge of a win after finishing third in four of the past nine starts.

With contract talks at JGR progressing well, the only cloud on the horizon might be Stenhouse, who vowed payback against Jones between and the playoffs.

“I guess go ahead,” Jones said when told of Stenhouse’s threat. “He was racing me really hard and for nothing. We were 200 laps to go in the race, and he had the choice of lifting and letting me go, and he didn’t do it for five laps, and that’s just how it is.

“If you’re going to race hard, you’re going to get raced hard. I didn’t want to have to do it, but sometimes it comes down to it. I like Ricky, but he races really hard. I expect it. If I’m going to race Kevin Harvick at the front of the field like that 10 laps in a row, I’m going to get wrecked. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to keep moving forward and keep giving yourself a good day.”

Denny Hamlin laments ‘stupid decision’ on final lap against Kevin Harvick

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In the aftermath of his runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick on Sunday in New Hampshire, Denny Hamlin was left regretting and praying.

He regretted his “stupid decision” on how to race Harvick on the last lap, which resulted in fenders banging and Harvick’s first win of the year.

That had Hamlin hoping a higher power might give him the win another way.

The tech gods could not be persuaded to intervene.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver wishes he had dealt with Harvick’s No. 4 Ford differently once they took the white flag.

He now knows he’d have been better off doing exactly what Harvick did in this race last year when he performed a bump-and-run on Kyle Busch in Turns 1 and 2 in the closing laps and went on to win.

“My decision was after Turn 1 and I got him out of the groove, ‘I don’t want to be the leader here, I’d rather be the guy behind’ and that was a stupid decision because I should have just went in there and carried him up the race track,” Hamlin said. “That’s just not the way I want to do it. We’re two veteran guys, we know how to race these things clean and let’s just figure it out in the end and he got the best of us.”

Hamlin said he has “lot of respect” for Harvick and “I did the best I could to be as clean as I could.”

Hamlin led 113 laps in a backup car after he crashed in practice on Friday.

“I knew we made it really good yesterday in practice, but once it got out front it was phenomenal and better than expected,” Hamlin said, but he lamented the difficulties of racing in dirty air with not getting to Harvick’s bumper sooner. “He never slipped a tire and I couldn’t quite get to him until he made that one little lane choice mistake coming to the white (flag) passing a lapped car and taking the bottom, I knew that was our opportunity to get a huge run and we did.”

Bubble Trouble: New Hampshire tough on those trying to make playoffs

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Sunday was a day of trouble for many of the drivers seeking to make the playoffs, but when it ended, Ryan Newman solidified his spot with a top-10 finish despite mechanical issues.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson did not share Newman’s luck. Johnson fell out of a playoff spot after mechanical woes left him with a 30th-place finish for the second week in a row.

Here’s a look at what drivers trying to earn a playoff spot endured Sunday:

Ryan Newman — With just under 100 laps left, Newman radioed his crew that he thought his engine had lost a cylinder (it proved to be a broken coil wire) and he was down on power. When the crew told him to stay out, he responded by saying: “I ain’t coming in.”

Newman, who entered the race in the first spot outside a playoff position and in a backup car after crashing Friday, was running 14th at the time of the trouble. It looked as if he would lose several points. Instead, he managed to finish seventh to score his fifth top 10 in the last six races.

“Hell of a job today, guys,” Newman said on the radio to his team after the race. “That’s a never-give-up attitude.”

The recovery helped him climb from 17th in the points to 15th in the standings and in a playoff spot. Newman is 21 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, who is in the first spot outside a playoff position.

Jimmie Johnson — A broken water pump and power steering issues sent him to pit road and he lost several laps for repairs. That left Johnson with a 30th-place finish, dropping him out of a playoff spot.

Johnson is 17 points behind Clint Bowyer for the last playoff position with six races left in the regular season.

“Certainly a letdown to say the least,” Johnson told NBCSN.

“Certainly the wrong time of year to have some bad luck. It looked like the guys I’m worried about in the points didn’t have the best of days either. Maybe I got a pass on this one. Just disappointed to say the least.”

Clint Bowyer: A crash on a restart impacted his day and left him with a 20th-place finish that dropped him from 14th in the points to 16th, the final playoff spot.

Bowyer has finished 20th or worse in four of the last six races.

Kyle Larson: Two crashes in the final 85 laps left him with a 33rd-place finish for his second finish of 20th or worse in the last three races. Larson remains 13th in the standings and is 31 points ahead of Johnson.

Erik JonesHe had contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the track and Alex Bowman on pit road. He also had a pit road speeding penalty and thought he was going to be penalized another time on pit road. Through all of that, he managed to finish third for the second week in a row and solidified his spot after entering the day in the last playoff spot.

Jones is 14th in the standings, 28 points ahead of Johnson.