Friday 5: Furniture Row Racing’s demise is a fate others know too well

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. — The names have changed but the stories haven’t when it comes to the tale of Furniture Row Racing and all the teams before it that faded away.

The concern about costs, the dependence on sponsorship and the volatility of it all is not something that is new to NASCAR (or even motorsports). That those issues contributed to Furniture Row Racing announcing this week that it would cease operations after this season only added that team to a long list. That Furniture Row Racing won the Cup championship last year only makes the story more powerful.

But not unique.

Go back in time and look at what other car owners were saying and how their concerns were repeated.

In 1999, Ricky Rudd closed his race shop and sold his cars and equipment at auction because he was unable to find a sponsor to continue a team that had won six races in six seasons, including the 1997 Brickyard 400.

Rudd told motorsport.com the day of the auction: “I’ll probably get a little sad when I see those race cars loaded up on trucks and rolled away. That’ll bother me a little. The hardest day was the day before I signed with (Robert) Yates. I walked into the shop and told the guys that the sponsorship deal wasn’t working out, and that I was sorry but I was gonna do something else next year.”

In 2007, Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. merged during the season because Ginn needed help after it was unable to find funding for two of its three cars. Car owner Bobby Ginn explained to The Associated Press that had he not merged: “We would have had to continue to cut costs, and that is disgraceful to me. I am proud of the merger. I would not have been proud of putting a car out there that couldn’t compete.”

Ginn went on to say: “Even if the sponsors had come in, we probably would be talking about something like this anyway. This is just going to be the way teams operate going forward, and we needed to be invited to the party before it was too late.”

In 2009, Bill Davis Racing — a team that won the 2002 Daytona 500 with Ward Burton — was sold after what The Associated Press described as a “fruitless search for sponsorship.”

In 2013, car owner James Finch sold Phoenix Racing to HScott Racing. Finch told NASCAR.com at the time: “I’ll come to races and all. I just wasn’t going to go broke doing it. Sponsorships are really tough to come by and stuff like that.” HScott Racing announced in December 2016 that it would not field a team, citing lack of sponsorship as a reason.

In 2015, Michael Waltrip Racing announced it would cease operations after the season. Clint Bowyer was a playoff team for that organization that year.

The organization was a three-car team in 2013 but then lost sponsor NAPA after the season in response to the Richmond scandal that year when NASCAR penalized MWR for team orders in the final regular-season race of the year and removed Truex from the playoffs.

Last month, a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of BK Racing to Front Row Motorsports. Court documents showed that BK Racing, which struggled to find sponsorship, lost $29.5 million from 2014-16. The team also owed a bank more than $9 million in unpaid loans and the IRS more than $2.5 million.

“It’s a tough business,” Devine said in February at Daytona when asked why he never aligned with another team to help defray costs. “I think it’s an expensive learning curve. I also think … you’ve got to decide where you are taking the company and I took it down a very independent route, which probably wasn’t the smartest (thing).”

Just in recent years, the sport has seen Richard Childress Racing contract from three to two teams and Roush Fenway Racing, which had five full-time teams in 2009 downsize to four teams in 2010, three teams in 2012 and two teams in 2017.

Furniture Row Racing cut from two teams to one this season and then suffered a fatal blow when 5-hour Energy announced in July it would not remain in the sport after this year. It is to serve as a co-primary sponsor for 30 races this year. Forget that the 2019 Daytona 500 is 164 days away, the need to have sponsorship secured for next year had already passed for Furniture Row Racing.

Although their lifespan may be recalled more often by fans, its demise falls in line with what has happened to many teams through the years.

2. Similar refrain

This is becoming too familiar for Martin Truex Jr.

For the second time in his career, an organization shut down with him as a driver. Two other times, an organization Truex drove for merged to remain in the sport.

In 2007, Truex was with Dale Earnhardt Inc. when it merged with Ginn Racing, creating a four-car operation. Then that organization later merged with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Truex then left for Michael Waltrip Racing only to see his ride disappear after the 2013 season when NAPA left the team. The fallout was from the Richmond team orders scandal NASCAR penalized MWR. Now, Truex will be heading elsewhere after Furniture Row Racing closes shop after this season.

3. What’s next?

One of the things to watch for with Furniture Row Racing is who buys its charter.

The value of a charter, just like anything, is based on what someone is willing to pay. If there’s only one interested party, the price won’t be as high. If there are more, that can raise the price.

Don’t take what the BK Racing charter (and team) sold for in bankruptcy court last month as an indicator. The team, including the charter, sold for $2 million last month. After a minimum price was set for the charter and team, there was only one bid, leading to a sale that many in the court called disappointing.

One thing that should make Furniture Row’s charter is its recent performance. There’s a historical element to charters that have weighted payments based on the performance of the team that held that charter. With Furniture Row Racing’s championship last year, this charter will have a larger payment to the next owner.

4. Unique attraction

The NASCAR weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway began with a USAC National Midget race on Thursday night.

A quarter-mile dirt track was built inside Turn 3 and more than 100 USAC midgets entered the event.

Holding races leading up to a NASCAR weekend is not a new thing but showing this dirt track series is. With a push toward grassroots racing, such options could be good tie-ins with race weekends — as long as fans show up. If fans don’t attend, they won’t happen.

The grandstand was full for the midget race, which was won by Brady Bacon and saw Christopher Bell finish fifth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. place 11th.

Many fans were already looking forward to this event returning next year.

5. Special promotion

You might have missed it but Pocono Raceway announced this week that children 12 and under will receive free gate admission while accompanied by an adult to its two Cup races and its IndyCar race in 2019.

Children 12 and under already could attend NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity races for free but this is a step up for the sport.

It provides another avenue to reach out to a younger generation with the hope that those in that group become life-long NASCAR fans.

Admittedly, it’s not something that can be done everywhere. Watkins Glen sold out its grandstands again this year. Darlington Raceway did not announce a sellout for last weekend’s Southern 500 but the stands were close to capacity.

At other tracks where there are open seats, it might be something to consider in the future even if only on a year-to-year basis.

Could be the start of something for Cup races.

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Tire issues end race for Chase Elliott, Christopher Bell

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Chase Elliott, who entered Sunday’s second-round playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway leading the points, crashed and finished 32nd.

A right rear tire issue caused Elliott to lose control while leading on Lap 184 of the 334-lap race. 

He was the second playoff driver to be eliminated after tire issues. Christopher Bell finished 34th after having two right rear tires go down. After his second tire went down, Bell hit the wall. Cole Custer and Alex Bowman also had incidents after tire issues. 

Elliott did not score stage points in the first stage and was eliminated before the end of the second stage, leaving him with no stage points. Bell also scored no stage points. Bell entered the race in a three-way tie for the final three transfer spots to the next round. 

“To have two right rears go in the first half of the race is very strange,” Bell said. “I don’t know. It’s a very disappointing day. We are probably going to be in a deep hole now.”

The second round continues next Sunday at Talladega and concludes Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Roval.

 

RFK Racing reaps benefits of hard work with Bristol win, Texas pole

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When Brad Keselowski arrived at RFK Racing after last season, among the early changes he made included repainting the walls and restructuring the team’s shop.

They were meant to infuse an organization that hadn’t won a Cup points race since 2017 with a new look and feel. And help create a new mindset for the 165 employees.

“The first thing (Keselowski) started changing was colors,” Justin Edgell, tire carrier on Chris Buescher’s team, told NBC Sports. “Everything is satin black. My man is a satin black-type guy. I’m talking about trash cars. I’m talking about equipment. I like it. You know, look good, play good.”

RFK Racing has looked great the last week. Buescher gave the organization its first points win of the season, taking the checkered flag in the Bristol night race. Keselowski followed by winning the pole for today’s second-round playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). Buescher starts today’s race 13th. 

MORE: Details for today’s Cup race at Texas 

It has taken much for the organization to experience a week like this. The season didn’t start well. Both Keselowski and Buescher failed to make the feature in the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in early February. 

Less than two weeks later, they each won their qualifying race at Daytona. 

RFK Racing wouldn’t be back to Victory Lane until Bristol. In between were disappointments, close calls and plenty of work.

“We’re in a spot where with our company, we’ve made a lot of changes over the last six to 12 months,” Keselowski told NBC Sports after the team’s celebration on Monday. “And there’s a maturation cycle to those. 

“Nobody likes that maturation cycle. There’s still things that we’ve invested that haven’t matured. So there’s a lot of reasons for optimism, but we have a long ways to go.”

Having patience in such a fast-moving sport isn’t easy but it is needed.

“I wish we would have matured earlier,” Keselowski said,” but I ain’t going to look at gift horse in the mouth and scream at him. I will take it and we’re going to build off it. Right now we have two teams that are like 10th-place teams. Our last few weeks have shown that’s where we’re at in speed, that’s where we’re at in finishes. If we ran a whole season like that … we’d be a playoff team.”

When Keselowski spoke to the employees at Monday’s celebration, he told them to enjoy the moment. He also had another message for them.

“Winning at this level is really hard and it’s supposed to be hard,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of fight to get there this year. Certainly some good moments and some really tough moments. I’m really proud of all of us and the work that went in.”

Another key to the organization’s success finding common ground between those who had been at Roush before Keselowski’s arrival and the new hires and their ideas.

After working through those issues, which included how the cars were prepared, Graves saw progress.

“You step back and embrace it and look at it and it’s like, ‘OK, this makes sense,’” Graves said. “You can start to develop and build on some ideas that make progress.”

The results started to show. Buescher finished second at Sonoma in June. He was sixth at Road America in July. He placed third at Richmond ninth at Watkins Glen in back-to-back weekends in August. 

“It’s been really nice to go to these race tracks and be in the hunt, be up there at the front,” Buescher told the employees at Monday’s celebration. “We’re learning every week. We’ve made huge progress really through the whole year.”

Buescher and Keselowski combined to lead 278 of the 500 laps at Bristol. Buescher found himself toward the front late in the race. Graves made a two-tire call on the last stop. Buescher went from entering the pits fourth to exiting first when no one else made such a move. Buescher led the final 61 laps to win. 

Then he got to do something he hadn’t in years. 

A burnout.

“I’ve only been able to do like three in my career,” he told NBC Sports, noting he didn’t do burnouts in ARCA because he often needed those tires for another event. “Xfinity wins, we were able do do some burnouts. 

“After the Pocono Cup win, it was rained out so we just had to push it to victory way, so it’s been a really long time since I’ve done any legal burnouts in a race car. So that part was nice. 

“It was nice to actually be able celebrate on the frontstretch with the team the real way, in the moment, not hanging around for that that rainout. That’s what made it that much better in my eyes.”

Keselowski looks to join Buescher in winning a points race this year. In a season with 19 different winners, Keselowski admits it’s challenging to be among those who have yet to win.

“Now we are in a spot where we are ready to play some offense,” he said. “It is a good feeling. It comes with a pragmatic view and a lot of humility of being able to walk away from some races where you were legitimately 20th or 25th and go to work the next morning and say, ‘Alright, we aren’t going to burn the house down. We are going to repaint the living room and then we are going to go to the next room and work on it piece by piece.’

“The easy thing to do is to lose control over yourself. That is the easy thing to do. The hard thing to do is to work through it and be methodical in that approach.”

It’s an approach that has led RFK Racing back to Victory Lane.

Dr. Diandra: Surprises in playoff performance

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The first round of playoff performances defied expectations in both good and bad ways.

That is my excuse for why my very first attempt at making predictions was an abject failure. I projected Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Briscoe and Austin Dillon would be the first four drivers out of the playoff. Only Dillon failed to move on to the round of 12.

Of course, my algorithm did not account for Kyle Busch having two engine failures in three races. Especially after his not having had a single engine failure in the previous 92 races.

Nor did the algorithm predict Kevin Harvick’s Darlington race being ended by fire.

Or that none of the 16 playoff drivers would win even one of the first three playoff races.

On the positive side, playoff drivers took 11 out of 15 possible top-fives (73%), and 21 of 30 top-10s (70%.) That’s consistent with a season boasting 19 different winners.

Chase Elliott is the only driver to win more than two races this season. Drivers made the playoffs by finishing well rather than winning of lot of races.

Playoff performance by the numbers

In the table at right, I list drivers in order of points after Bristol — but before re-seeding. Red numbers indicate DNFs.A table showing drivers' finishing positions for the first three playoff races

DNFs played a major role in the first round. Each of the four eliminated drivers had at least one DNF. Harvick and Busch had two each. Both of Busch’s DNFs and one of Harvick’s were due to equipment failure.

Only three drivers earned top-10 finishes in all three playoff races: Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Byron. Two of my predicted eliminations over-performed. And the one driver I expected to dominate the playoffs didn’t.

Relative to the regular season

Excluding equipment failures and crashes, one expects most drivers to perform, on average, at about the same level they ran during the regular season. That mostly didn’t happen.

In the first two elimination rounds, top 10s are enough to stay in the game. So that’s the metric I’ll focus on here.

The graph below compares drivers’ top-10 finish percentage in the first three playoff races to the same metric from the regular season.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races to

Each arrow starts at the driver’s regular-season average and travels to his playoff average. Blue indicates playoff performance better than the regular season and red indicates the opposite.

Six drivers performed better than their regular-season averages would suggest.

Byron entered the playoffs seeded 10th with only five top-10 finishes in the regular season. With three top-10s in the first round of the playoffs, he earned the second-most points of any driver in the round of 16.

Hamlin had the second-largest improvement with two second-place finishes and a ninth. That continues his season-long trend of trying to overcome a slow start.

Bell’s 53.8% top-10 rate for the regular season doesn’t give him much room to improve. But he did. He’s also the only driver with three top-five playoff finishes.

Bowman, whose crew chief, Greg Ives, will retire at the end of this season, increased from 38.5% to 66.6% top-10 finishes.

“I think we are super motivated,” Bowman said, “because its Greg’s last 10 races with me and we want to end on a high note. We know the summer doesn’t matter anymore, our troubles, and it’s a good reset for us going into the playoffs.”

The biggest surprise, perhaps, was Elliott. He has the most top-10 finishes of any driver with 18. But only one came from the first playoff round.

Momentum

Driver finishes rise and fall throughout a season. The ups and downs are even larger this year because of the new Next Gen car. For that reason, it’s worth comparing playoff performance not only to the entire regular-season average, but also to just the last five regular-season races.

The arrows on the next plot start at the top-10 rate for each driver’s last five regular-season races and travel to their playoff rate.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races to the last five races of the regular season

Seven drivers improved relative to their last five regular-season races — the six from before, plus Daniel Suárez. Suárez rose from 20% to 33.3%. That’s typical of a season that has been fairly consistent, but not at a level that will take him to the final four.

Byron’s turnaround is even more impressive in view of his having zero top-10 finishes in the last five races of the regular season.

“I think we had a lot of really good tracks in the beginning of the year,” Byron said. “As we started to chase some speed and chase some things, we got off a little bit throughout the summer.”

He believes the team has returned to where it needs to be.

“We know what works; we know what doesn’t work,” Byron said. “We definitely know what doesn’t work after the last month or so, so that’s a good thing.”

Joey Logano has the largest downward trend relative to the last five races, going from a 80.0% top-10 rate to 33.3%.

This graph shows Elliott’s playoff decline to be a trend continuing from the end of the regular season. That might be good news for the other drivers struggling to catch up with him.

Scoring and re-seeding

The table below summarizes points and playoff points earned during the three playoff races and each drivers’ final score before re-seeding. The lineup looks quite different than it did going into this round of three races.

A table showing how many points each playoff driver earned in the first round But that’s before re-seeding.

I hadn’t appreciated playoff points until I did the math. Each driver moving on to the round of 12 gets 3000 points, plus their total playoff points.

Because none of these drivers won a race, only five of the 21 playoff points available in the last three races impact the new standings. Bell won two stages; Byron, Bowman and Busch one each.

So we’re mostly back to where we were leaving Daytona.

A table showing the re-seeded rankings entering the second round of playoff racesRyan Blaney fell a spot. Byron’s dramatic turnaround didn’t impact his playoff standing. Most of Bowman’s move up the charts is due to eliminating the drivers originally ranked seventh, ninth and 11th.

The current standings reflect NASCAR’s eternal struggle between winning and consistency. On the one hand, I understand the desire to mimic other sports’ playoffs and not let the results of the last round impact the next. But carrying over regular-season playoff points means that Elliott returns to P1 despite having earned fewer points in the three playoff races than seven of the 16 drivers.

That’s why Bell, who earned almost twice as many points as Elliott and won two stages, ties for sixth place with Hamlin and Blaney. Elliott goes from 40 points behind Bell to 27 points ahead of him.

If Bell or any of the other remaining drivers wants to challenge Elliott, even top-five finishes won’t be enough.

In these playoffs, performance isn’t enough. You have to win.

Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).