Martin Truex Jr. gives his side of Furniture Row Racing’s demise

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LAS VEGAS – Put aside the rumblings about tension with Joe Gibbs Racing, Martin Truex Jr. believes the impending closure of Furniture Row Racing essentially was about time.

If the exit of 5-hour Energy had been known in mid-April instead of mid-July, the defending series champion says his No. 78 Toyota wouldn’t be entering the stretch run of its final season.

“We just basically got put in a really bad time crunch,” Truex said Thursday at the NASCAR Playoff Media Day. “I think had we had three months, we probably could have put it all together and made it happen. We just got put in a really bad spot on timing.

“We couldn’t get everything done in four weeks, find $10 million and put it all together.”

In his first expansive public comments about owner Barney Visser’s decision to shutter his NASCAR team after a 13-year run, Truex put a brave face on the No. 78’s 10 remaining races to defend its title (“I feel like we’re in a great place”) and explained the underlying reasons for its surprising demise.

In the release announcing Furniture Row Racing’s shutdown, the team cited “the rising costs of continuing a team alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing” as a factor that exacerbated the budget deficit for 2019 after losing a multimillion-dollar sponsorship.

In switching to Toyota Racing Development as its engine supplier and manufacturer in 2016, Furniture Row Racing also entered a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, which has supplied Truex’s chassis. Truex consistently has outrun every Gibbs driver but Kyle Busch since then, scoring 16 victories.

That’s prompted questions about whether Gibbs jacked up the price as a countermeasure for being outperformed. Gibbs officials privately have denied that claim, suggesting it was difficult to determine the initial three-year cost of the alliance, and that an escalation in fees was natural.

Truex denied that his sterling results might have triggered the sort of gouging that occurs in other businesses in which a supplier indirectly forces a competitive client out of business with a financial squeeze.

“That has nothing to do with the situation we got in,” Truex said. “We were trying to put together, finish up a long-term deal to keep the same things going, and a sponsor pulled out. We didn’t have enough money suddenly, and we didn’t have enough time to find it to fill that void. Barney had no way to agree to do those things and keep them going without the money coming in, because there was no way he could make it work. So it’s really as simple as that. It was nothing to do with who was running this and who was running that and who was winning and who wasn’t.”

Truex said those who are whispering otherwise “just don’t know the story, and they are obviously just upset about things, and that’s understandable. But at the end of the day, it’s just not factual.”

He also rebuffed comparisons to the alliance between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing, which dissolved after an awkward final year in 2016 when SHR announced a move to Ford.

“I don’t think there was ever any hard feelings between either of the teams,” Truex said of Gibbs and Furniture Row Racing. “I thought everything, no matter how we did or how the other team did, I always felt like it was a great situation for us to be in, and obviously here we sit with the opportunity to win another championship, and I don’t feel like it’s any different than the first year we raced together, so I think it can work.”

What did change and have an impact on Furniture Row Racing was Visser’s outlook on life after surviving a heart attack and winning a championship.

Truex said the confluence of both events probably made it easier for the Denver-based owner to walk away from NASCAR.

“In talking to him, he mentioned that, so obviously it’s on his mind,” Truex said. “He’s thought about it. He’s got a huge family, lots of grandkids, loves spending time with them, and I think some of that or part of that made it easier. More time to spend with them, a lot less stress, a lot less to worry about making sure all the money’s coming in, and we’re getting what we need.

“It takes so much to keep these race teams going, especially a small team like ours with the way we were having to do things. It was a high stress level. But from what I gather working with him for this long and talking to him, he cares more about the people. I think it’s really what kept him going, it’s what kept him spending. Being able to see him bring in these guys and give them this huge opportunity and see them thrive in that situation and take advantage of those opportunities. To go through all that and win a championship, I felt like now his biggest thought is, ‘How do I make sure these guys can keep going? How do I help them land in a good spot?’ For him, he says, ‘For all you guys, this is a career. For me, it’s just a hobby.’ I think through all the stuff he’s been through, it probably helped him make the decision or be at peace with it a little bit.”

Truex said he has “no concern” about losing any key team members before the end of the season as Furniture Row Racing’s 61 employees continue to prepare cars while hunting for future work. He also believes the uncertainty will serve as a rallying cry instead of a distraction.

“I feel like we definitely want to repeat, no question about it,” he said. “I think you can take it one of two ways. You can hang your head down and say, ‘This sucks, why are we in this position’ and get mad at the world, or you can look at each other and say, ‘Let’s go do this.’

“I feel like that’s where we’re at. Barney gave us the opportunity to work there at a great place. Gave us all the tools we needed to go win a championship. So I think all of us, we look at that and say, ‘Hell yeah, let’s go do this. Let’s send Barney out on top. Let’s give him the best going away gift that we ever could.’ I honestly, truly feel that is our mindset and that’s our focus. And I have no questions about where our team is and how they’re going to approach the playoffs.”

Friday schedule for Xfinity Series at Road America

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The NASCAR Xfinity Series hits the track today with two practices at Road America in preparation for Saturday’s race.

The wunderground.com forecast for Friday calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 69 degrees and a 10% chance of rain during the day.

Here is today’s schedule at Road America:

(All times are Eastern)

10:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

1:35 – 2:25 p.m. – Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

3:35 – 4:55 – Final Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

Friday 5: Kyle Larson showing strength as Cup playoffs near

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While many of his competitors relax far away from a track, Kyle Larson is using the final off weekend of the season for Cup to go racing.

Why not keep going when things are good?

Larson enters this break having finished in the top 10 in each of the last four Cup races. While Joe Gibbs Racing drivers rank 1-2-3 in points scored during that stretch, Larson is the best of the rest. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has scored 146 points to rank fourth among all drivers during the last month.

That run has helped Larson go from being in danger of falling out of a playoff spot to having a comfortable margin with two races left in the regular season. Larson will head to Darlington Raceway next weekend for the Southern 500 trailing Alex Bowman by 10 points for 10th in the standings.

The recent run of success comes as Larson and his team avoided problems.

“I feel like our race cars have gotten little bit better and any time that happens, it makes your job a little bit easier and you can be less aggressive and still get good finishes,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I would just point to our cars getting a little bit better.

“I’ve crashed enough stuff early in the year and really still recently, but I’m trying to race a little bit smarter and make moves a little bit smarter and not try to run fifth with a 10th-place car and take my 10th or even if I fall back to 11th or 12th. Just being a little  bit smarter about things.”

Larson might have had a streak of six consecutive top-10 finishes but he placed 33rd at New Hampshire in July. Larson was ninth on a restart about 80 laps from the finish when he went low to try to pass Bowman entering Turn 1. Larson was on the bottom in a three-wide situation and spun, sliding up the track and backing into the wall. His woes were compounded when he had a right rear tire go down about 40 laps later and he crashed.

Larson knows he needs to make better decisions in the car.

“I should have just stayed in line and not push the issue,” he said of that restart against Bowman. “I had a fast car.”

That’s not the only time he’s had an issue. He looks to the Pocono race in June. On the final restart, he made contact with Clint Bowyer’s car and that forced Larson’s car into the wall. Larson finished 26th after having won both stages.

“I tried to clear myself up in front of Clint and not be quite enough clear and put myself in the fence with a few laps to go,” Larson said. “I cost myself there (Pocono and New Hampshire) a combined at least 40 points. That could put us inside the top 10 in points. Those are just two deals. I’ve had other races that I’ve been overly aggressive because you have to be.”

Even so, he’ll be in a good place when the Cup series resumes at Darlington Raceway. Larson finished third in last year’s Southern 500, the second time in the last three years he’s placed third there.

“I just think our team and myself just have a good feel for worn out surfaces at intermediate tracks,” Larson said. “You look at Atlanta, we were really fast. Chicago, we were really, really fast. Homestead, we’re always good. Darlington, we’re always good. So I think we’ve got a good package for that. It just fits my driving style.”

2. Chasing the right away around Road America

While the focus this weekend at Road America (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) will be on if Austin Cindric can win his third consecutive Xfinity Series road course event, Chase Briscoe will be looking to extend his streak of top-10 finishes at a track he’s never raced.

Briscoe has scored six top-10 finishes in a row, tying Tyler Reddick and Justin Allgaier for the longest active streak in the series. 

Unlike those two, Briscoe’s only experience at the track is on a simulator.

“Road America is going to be a challenge,” said Briscoe, who won last year’s inaugural race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. “I feel like Watkins Glen is one of the easier road courses just to go to the first time. It’s not really that technical, it’s pretty easy. Then Mid-Ohio … I ran an IMSA race there and an Xfinity race there. I felt like that was the one track I would have the opportunity to run good. But the Road America deal is going to be a struggle I feel like.”

Briscoe spent time on a simulator for the 14-turn, 4.048-mile track on Aug. 14. 

“I feel like at a track that big, it’s really hard to get into a rhythm,” he said. “At Watkins Glen, there are seven corners. You go through that same corner it seems like pretty quickly. At Road America, it’s going to be another two and a half minutes it seems like until you get back around there. It’s going to be a challenge. I feel like I kind of struggle on how to pass guys on the road course. It’s just a different style of passing and setting guys up.”

How so?

“Just seems like on the oval, you can catch a slower guy and it’s so easy to go to the other groove and pass them,” Briscoe said. “On these road courses, it’s typically one groove and you catch one slow guy and you might be stuck behind him for eight corners before you get to a passing zone to pass. I don’t know if Road America is going to be bad. For example, at Mid-Ohio, once you get to Turn 5, you can’t pass until really I think Turn 10 or 11, so you’re just kind of stuck. It’s hard to kind of have patience and ride behind people and know you can’t push it in those areas.”

3. Woe is the No. 3

This was not the season Richard Childress Racing imagined for its 50th anniversary.

Heading into next weekend’s Southern 500, Austin Dillon is 23rd in points, two spots ahead of rookie teammate Daniel Hemric.

Dillon’s 34th-place finish last weekend at Bristol marked his fifth finish of 30th or worse in the last seven races.

“We’ve got to do a better job in our group of controlling our entire weekend from the time we unload off the trailer, it’s been a little bit inconsistent,” Dillon said before last weekend’s Bristol race. “But in that sense, motors are good, feel like our bodies are good. The core stuff is there, but we’re beating ourselves. That’s what’s frustrating about this year. I feel like we’ve had more speed than we had in the past but haven’t been able to execute.”

Dillon won stage 2 at Daytona in July before he and Clint Bowyer triggered an 18-car crash battling for the lead. Dillon finished 33rd. A transmission and alternator issue led to a 35th-place finish for Dillon at Kentucky. He was 32nd at New Hampshire after a right front tire went down and he hit the wall. Dillon placed 31st at Watkins Glen after struggling most of the weekend on the road course. Dillon’s Bristol finish was hampered by a tire that went down and sent him into the wall and Jimmie Johnson into the back of Dillon’s car.

Dillon admits this has been his most frustrating year in the series.

“It’s been really trying mentally,” he said. “Just beats you down because every week you have to come back to it, what’s next? What’s going to happen next?”

Most weeks, at least recently, the answer to that question has not been good for Dillon and his team.

“I just want to do so much for RCR in their 50th year, for the No. 3 and for myself,” he said. “I hate running bad. It sucks. You want to get those finishes and you see bad finishes piling up and it gets you down.”

4. Feeling comfortable

As William Byron nears his first playoff appearance, the Hendrick Motorsports driver says he feels more comfortable in his role with the team in his second season in Cup.

“This is the first time I can walk into the shop and I don’t feel like I’m on pins and needles with the guys, in terms of them just trusting me and me feeling comfortable with them to tell them what is exactly on my mind,” Byron said. “It’s the first time I can walk into the shop and feel like I can say what’s on my mind; if I’m not content or I’m not happy with something or even when things go great.”

Byron is growing into his role with guidance from crew chief Chad Knaus, who joined the team after last season. Knaus has Byron 12th in the standings with races left at Darlington and Indianapolis before the Cup playoffs begin.

“I would say Chad and I are both kind of, the two pillars of the team,” Byron said. “Chad’s job is to encourage those guys, give them the resources they need, make sure they’re staying on task and make sure they’re focused. My job is to kind of I guess cheerlead a little bit in terms of motivation but also to be honest with them and say, hey this was good, this wasn’t good, this worked well, this didn’t.”

5. Back again

While the Gander Outdoors Truck Series makes its annual visit to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park for Sunday’s playoff race, it won’t be the first time this year for ThorSport’s drivers.

Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes, Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter competed in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at the road course, driving Ford Mustang GT4s. Rhodes and Enfinger shared driving duties and finished 13th. Crafton and Sauter shared driver duties and placed 14th.

With Sunday’s race the second in the three-race opening round, Enfinger, Crafton and Sauter will be looking to win to advance. Reigning series champ Brett Moffitt won last week’s race at Bristol to move on to the second round.

Austin Cindric rebounds from rough July to crash Xfinity’s ‘Big 3’ party

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When the month of August opened, Austin Cindric was in a desperate need of a “good weekend.”

So much so that the 20-year-old driver “didn’t even care about winning the race” when the Xfinity Series visited its first road course of the season at Watkins Glen International.

A “miserable” July saw Cindric fail to finish in the top 10 at Kentucky (spin), New Hampshire (engine change before the race) and Iowa (crash).

Despite being one of the favorites to win at WGI due to his sports car background and near-misses on road courses last year, Cindric just wanted to finish the race.

At the same time, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson had been experiencing his own July misery. But that didn’t stop him from being one of the first people to send Cindric a message of congratulations when Cindric won at WGI.

“You wouldn’t believe it, but the first text I got after the race was from Jimmie Johnson,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever. Before my grandma, before anyone else, Jimmie Johnson was the first text in my phone.”

It was a “pretty simple” congratulatory message for Cindric’s performance in beating AJ Allmendinger to secure his first career Xfinity Series win.

“Stuff like that for me goes a long way,” Cindric said. “I think it does for most guys in my position.”

Cindric had gone 54 starts before earning his first Xfinity win and his second in a national NASCAR series. His victory was Team Penske’s first Xfinity win in 28 races.

Now after months of talk about the “Big 3” – Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer – Cindric has forced his way into the conversation.

“The goal is to be able to outrun them, not just run with them, but outrun them,” said Cindric, who added that the trio of drivers – who compete for three different teams and manufacturers – has provided a good “gauge” for his team.

Over the last three weeks Cindric has won twice, backing up the Watkins Glen triumph with a victory at his home track of Mid-Ohio. He’s the only series regular after Reddick, Bell and Custer with more than one win through 22 races.

Austin Cindric races beneath eventual race-winner Tyler Reddick at Bristol Motor Speedway (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

Cindric’s hot steak continued last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. Though he didn’t win, Cindric earned his third consecutive top five. That was after he won his second pole in a row, edging Kyle Busch.

Though he has nine top fives this year, Cindric said there’s “no doubt” his Bristol performance helps solidify the confidence that his team is more than just a contender on road courses.

“I don’t think that hangs over my head as much as it probably seems like it does,” Cindric said. “The road courses were going to be a strength for us this year, I don’t think that’s a secret that’s my skill set, that’s where my experience is at. At the same time, I’ve got six poles in the Xfinity Series, three of them are on ovals and three of them are on road courses. I feel like I’ve definitely got a strength in that regard.”

Now comes Road America (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN).

The series heads to the 14-turn, 4.048-mile road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, for its third road course in four races.

Cindric, who made his series debut there in 2017, will try to win a third straight road course race. That hasn’t been done in the Xfinity Series since Terry Labonte won at Watkins Glen from 1994-96.

He’ll also look to add to Penske’s all-time series-leading numbers on road courses in wins (12), top fives (39), poles (19) and laps led (963).

Cindric has raced on the track a half-dozen times across NASCAR, ARCA and sports cars. He says piloting a stock car around Road America requires slowing “everything down” compared to sports cars.

Austin Cindric racing at Road America in 2018 (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images).

“You’re braking before any brake marker on the race track, which is pretty crazy,” Cindric said. “The longevity, you’ve got really long straightaways, followed up by really long brake zones and the longevity of brake pressure applied is insane there in a stock car. So you really have to time things well on a restart and in traffic. I think it’s a really easy place for guys to overshoot the braking zone. …

“I think that’s what makes driving a stock car there really difficult. But it is also a very fun track because the lap is so long that there’s so many different opportunities to pass lapped cars, lapped traffic or even find a strength or weakness in your car. I think it’s somewhere you can differentiate yourself just by putting a lap together.”

Cindric is confident enough in his abilities that he can finally master Road America and claim his third win of the month.

“You just got to mind your Ps and Qs at the beginning of it and not get caught up in the argybargy (British term for a an argument or disagreement) and caving your nose in. … That’s where my focus is.”

Well, not entirely. While one Cup driver was paying attention to him at Watkins Glen, Cindric will have his eyes peeled this weekend for the driver that’s been at the forefront of conversation this week in NASCAR.

Matt DiBenedetto,” Cindric is quick to say. “He’s the man of the hour and he’s driving the (Joe Gibbs Racing) 18 car. And that car’s been really, really good the last two road courses. I’m looking forward to racing him, because I know I will be because he’s obviously really good on road courses.”

DiBenedetto, who placed second last weekend in the Cup race at Bristol, has road course finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and sixth (Watkins Glen) this year. Saturday’s race will be his first in the Xfinity Series since 2016.

“I’m excited to see what he’s got and see if we’ve got anything for him,” Cindric said.

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Stewart-Haas Racing sweeps regular-season finale of eNASCAR Heat Pro League

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Stewart-Haas Racing swept both races in the eNASCAR Heat Pro League’s regular-season finale, held Wednesday night on a virtual Daytona International Speedway.

It was the first time one team has swept a round this season.

Josh Shoemaker (SHG Slick 14x) won his second race in a row, winning the XBox One event.

Brandyn Gritton (SHG_HotRod_14p) won for SHR in the PlayStation 4 event, earning his third win of the year.

Below are the final overall point standings – combing both consoles – heading into the four-round playoffs, which begin Sept. 11 on a virtual Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Eliminated from playoff contention are the teams for Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing.

 

You can watch both races in the below video.