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.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

 

 

 

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”