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.

Roger Penske was ready for his close-up in popular commercial

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MONTEREY, California – Roger Penske is the only team owner in auto racing history who has 18 “Baby Borg” Trophies in his possession for his team’s record 18 wins in the Indianapolis 500.

Perhaps his next trophy should be an Emmy.

Penske took part in a commercial along with 103rd Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud and one of his NASCAR Cup drivers, Ryan Blaney. The commercial was shot at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sept. 7 while NASCAR was in town for the Brickyard 400.

The premise of the commercials is a takeoff on the 2006 comedy, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” with Blaney playing the Ricky Bobby role and Pagenaud playing the Jean Girard role.

The commercial was shot by NBC to promote its coverage of the NTT IndyCar Series and NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series and concludes with Penske stepping in between the two drivers, demanding them to, “Go out there and win races.”

Penske delivered the line perfectly and in just three takes.

“It took me about five minutes,” Penske told NBCSports.com. “They made it very easy for me. We let the guys do all of the hard work. It was fun for me to do. I saw it, and I didn’t make a fool out of myself.

“I’m ready for the next commercial.”

Penske’s ability to deliver his lines perfectly impressed NBC Sports Group President of Programing Jon Miller.

“I assume he’s got his SAG card,” Miller told NBCSports.com. “He has certainly been in front of the camera enough, and he’s quite an ambassador for the sport, so we were not at all surprised by that.”

NBC Sports Executive Producer Sam Flood was also highly impressed with Penske’s ability to turn into an actor in front of the camera.

“We were thrilled that he agreed to do it,” Flood told NBC Sports.com. “It’s one of those special things and the kind of guy he is to jump on board and make it even bigger because we had a ‘Plan B’ if Roger couldn’t do it, and when we got the confirmation, we knew we had something special that was going to happen.

“Roger Penske did the ad with two of his drivers that we shot at the Brickyard last week that got out there. A lot of fun, a lot of great response to it, and that’s things we couldn’t have done in the past. I think that’s part of us leaning in as NBC in trying to grow all of motorsports, and it’s important that every form of racing gets attention, and that’s what we’re pushing, as you know all too well.”

Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden, who will take a 41-point lead over Andretti Autosport driver Alexander Rossi into Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix, also was complimentary of his team owner.

“Wow, I was impressed,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com. “First of all, how did they get him to do a cameo? That was cool. And he nailed it.

“The pressure on Simon and Blaney to nail it, after Roger does it in only three takes? Wow, the pressure was really on them to deliver their lines.”

Pagenaud thought Penske’s first take was the best.

“It didn’t take long for Roger to deliver his line, he was on top of it,” Pagenaud told NBCSports.com. “NBCSN was very excited about the idea. IndyCar CEO Mark Miles made sure we were able to get into Gasoline Alley early that day. It was the Saturday of the Brickyard 400 and it was early, but Roger was probably up since 2 a.m. I’m sure, so it wasn’t early for him.

“It was good, the script was fun and well done. I forced my French and Blaney being the perfect American NASCAR driver and Roger just being himself was just perfect. It shows personality between NASCAR and INDYCAR. NBC is doing such a great job showing both fans on both sides what is going in and it helps everybody get interested in both sports.”

Penske was asked if that is how he normally talks to his drivers in a prerace situation to fire them up.

“That’s not the normal, daily message, but that’s how it helped those two guys get going,” Penske said. “I think NBC has done a great job in all cases on IndyCar. The continuity of having the same partner has made a huge difference. The talent knows the drivers. They know the situation. Guys like Paul Tracy and the experience of Leigh Diffey and the whole group has done a great job.

“It’s about good racing. We have good teams. Lots of competition, new drivers and date equity. And it’s attracting young people.”

Penske believes the addition of NBC Sports to the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule, including the season’s final race on the NBC, has been a big boost to the series.

“Any time you are on network is great,” Penske said. “It’s great for the sponsors, the notoriety for the team and the drivers is very important for all of us as we finish up the season. It’s going to be a great weekend, and I hope we can continue the movement we’ve had and the momentum we’ve had coming up to the last weekend.”

Richmond winners and losers

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WINNERS

Joe Gibbs Racing — It was a 1-2-3-4 finish until Erik Jones’ car failed inspection. Still the team scored a 1-2-3 finish and claimed its fourth consecutive win on a short track with Martin Truex Jr.’s triumph. Don’t forget, the organization also won Friday’s Xfinity race with Christopher Bell.

Ryan Newman His fifth-place finish tied his best result of the year and was his third consecutive top-10 showing. He was encouraged by the team running toward the front and noted: “You take away those four Gibbs cars, we were racing for the win. I know it doesn’t work that way, but if they would have had one bad meeting (incident) we would’ve been in the hunt.” Still, Newman moved into a transfer spot heading into this coming weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Brad KeselowskiHe finished fourth and was the only driver outside of Joe Gibbs Racing to lead Saturday’s race.

Bubba Wallace His 12th-place finish was his third top-15 result in the last five races. He had one top-15 finish in the first 23 races of the season.

Front Row Motorsports — All three of its cars placed 21st or better, the first time the team has accomplished that feat this season. David Ragan was 19th, rookie Matt Tifft placed 20th and Michael McDowell was 21st.

LOSERS

Erik Jones He was feeling good about his fourth-place finish that put him within three points of the final transfer spot to the next round only to later find out that his car was disqualified for failing inspection after the race. Now he’s 45 points out of the final transfer spot and is essentially in a must-win situation. He faces being eliminated from the first round of the playoffs for a second year in a row.

William Byron Got lapped in the final circuits before the end of each stage and also had a pit road speeding penalty. That led to a season-worst 25th-place finish. He holds the final transfer spot to the second round by two points on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman heading to the Roval.

Brad Keselowski bumped up to fourth, but JGR domination still ‘not good news’

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Brad Keselowski ended Saturday’s NASCAR Cup playoff race at Richmond Raceway with what he thought was a fifth-place finish.

About an hour later though, Keselowski was moved up one position to fourth place after original fourth-place finisher Erik Jones was disqualified after his car failed post-race inspection.

Still, gaining one extra finishing position didn’t make the 2012 NASCAR Cup champion happy because of Joe Gibbs Racing’s domination in the second race of the playoffs – even with Jones’ DQ.

(How JGR finished is) definitely not good news,” Keselowski said. “We’ve got work to do. (JGR is) really strong and we’re not where we need to be to be able to beat them heads-up, but we threw everything we had at them.

We put down a great qualifying lap, got the first pit stall, had great pit stops and got to the lead, but just didn’t have the raw speed to keep it.”

MORE: Martin Truex Jr. completes Richmond sweep with playoff win

MORE: Results, points after 2nd race of Cup playoffs at Richmond

MORE: NASCAR disqualifies Erik Jones’ car for failing inspection

Keselowski tweeted a few hours after the race that he didn’t “take no pleasure & seek no treasure from another man’s loss,” referring to Jones’ DQ.


Even so, Keselowski took some consolation from his overall performance.

We led 80-some laps, so it’s not a bad day but just not nearly fast enough to dominate the race and win,” he said.

Keselowski mistakenly said in a post-race interview that he had joined Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in advancing to the Round of 12 two weeks from now due to his points in the standings.

Yeah, we’re locked into the next round,” Keselowski said. “That feels good. I’m proud of that effort.”

Actually, Keselowski left Richmond two points shy of being locked into the next playoff round. That will have to come next Sunday at Charlotte’s Roval.

There’s still work to do not only for Keselowski’s car, but also those of his teammates — Joey Logano finished 11th and Ryan Blaney 17th — to counter JGR’s domination.

But what exactly has to be done is a question mark, Keselowski said.

Honestly, I don’t know,” Keselowski said. “They’ve got all the secrets so we need to find some more secrets.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Kyle Busch sees progress in runner-up finish at Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. — After his fiery comments last week led some to be critical of his attitude toward slower drivers, Kyle Busch was calmer after his runner-up performance to Martin Truex Jr. on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Busch led a race-high 202 of 400 laps but lost the lead to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate with 26 laps to go and had to settle for second place.

“We put up a valiant effort,” Busch said.

MORE: NASCAR disqualifies Erik Jones’ fourth-place finishing car

While his winless drought starched to 14 races, Busch noted that the performance was a step forward for the No. 18 Toyota team.

“I know we’re capable of it, the team is capable of it,” said Busch, who clinched a spot in the second round with his 54-point night. “Just stupid things have been biting us this year and we put it all together tonight. I didn’t speed on pit road, pit crew did a good job, our car was fast and we made the most of our effort.”

Whether it was Busch hitting the wall (or another car) at Las Vegas, an engine failure at Indianapolis, the pit crew losing the lead at Darlington or a speeding penalty at Watkins Glen (and hitting cars), Busch and the team have been off in recent races despite often having the speed to challenge for wins. In the process, Busch has lost the chance to collect many more playoff points.

He was strong enough Saturday night to win the second stage, giving him his third stage win in the last seven races.

But Busch didn’t have enough at the end to keep Truex behind him.

“We ran OK,” Busch said. “(Truex) could follow closer than I could, and he was better on the long run than I was. Why? Maybe I pushed my tires too hard there at the last stint at the beginning trying to stay ahead of (Denny Hamlin), which gave (Truex) the opportunity to kind of save his stuff and roll around and attack later.”