HOMESTEAD, Fla. – There were no tears shed as Martin Truex Jr. climbed from his No. 78 Toyota after the final ride of Furniture Row Racing.
About a half-dozen team members in orange and black firesuits stood wearily nearby with mostly sullen faces and exchanged some handshakes, hugs and shoulder pats. Crew chief Cole Pearn clapped Truex on the left shoulder and had a measured conversation with his driver about everything that transpired over the past three hours. Team owner Barney Visser wasn’t at the car but was described by Pearn as “just his normal solemn self; not much emotion.”
But the feelings still were raw for the team that nearly left NASCAR on top.
“It sucks,” said Truex, whose voice did quaver a few times in a NBC interview after finishing second Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in his bid for consecutive championships in the last start for his Denver-based team. “Yeah, it sucks.
“It sucks. It hurts. It’s terrible. I hate it. I wish we could go on and race 10 more years together, but we can’t.”
After a late-night flight to the Rocky Mountains, life would begin anew for the 62 members of Furniture Row Racing (and perhaps with harsh realities for at least a third of the team). There are cars and equipment to be liquidated, houses to be sold and families to be moved (which is why so many tears were shed last week after its hauler was packed a final time and dispatched to the season finale).
The little team that could from Colorado then will disperse to all corners of the country with many of its plucky employees probably still wondering what could have been if not for a fateful late caution in South Florida.
“No question, we had the car to beat, but if you don’t lead the last lap, it doesn’t matter what you got,” said Truex, who actually led only 20 laps (the fewest of the four championship contenders) but whose car clearly was strongest over full green-flag runs of 30 laps or more. “We fought hard. We played the right strategy. We kept getting it better and better and on the long runs, that thing was nasty. We’d kill them. That was cool. But it didn’t come down to that tonight.”
Like it does so often at the 1.5-mile oval with massive tire wear, the Ford Ecoboost 400 came down to a late caution flag. Until the yellow flew with 20 laps remaining for contact involving the No. 2 Ford of Brad Keselowski (Logano’s teammate) and Daniel Suarez’s No. 19 Toyota (the car that Truex and Pearn will helm next season along with a few select FRR crew members), it seemed the race would be decided between Kevin Harvick and Truex,
With fourth title contender Kyle Busch in first (and hoping for a caution) on much older tires and needing to stop again, the lead was cycling toward Harvick and Truex, who seemed in the catbird seat for his fifth victory of the season.
“I thought we were slaying (Harvick) pretty hard and would have got him pretty quick, and there was no way what (Busch’s team) was doing was going to work out,” Pearn said.
Until the final caution.
After pit stops, Busch emerged in first ahead of Truex, Logano and Harvick. Truex quickly dusted Busch on the Lap 253 restart, but Logano swept past him four laps later with Truex barely able to put up a fight.
“He was so much faster than me at that point, if I would have hit him, he would have just hit me back and went on,” Truex said when asked if he could have been more aggressive “It was a moot point. I needed to be faster. It wasn’t even close at that point in the race. He passed me so fast, I didn’t even have a chance to do anything. So, yeah.”
Logano led a race-high 80 laps primarily because he was unbeatable during the first 15 to 20 laps after a restart. Sunday’s last restart was with 15 to go.
“Just needed more time,” Truex said.
And more than a little luck, as it turned out. Sunday’s race was the inverse of Truex’s path to the 2017 championship, which he won with a better short-run car than Busch … because of a late yellow flag that was triggered because of debris from a flat tire on Suarez’s No. 19.
“(Suarez) brought the caution out last year which won us the championship,” Pearn said. “This year it cost us the championship. You’ve got to be good, but you’ve got to have a bit of luck. At the end of the day, it just didn’t quite shake out.”
Was there extra sting from losing to Logano, whom Truex vowed wouldn’t win the championship after the Team Penske driver advanced to the Championship 4 by bumping him aside for a last-lap win Oct. 28 at Martinsville Speedway?
“Yeah, a little bit, but what are you going to do? They did a good job,” Truex said. “They beat us. Fair and square. It’s the way it goes. That’s racing. That’s why we race.”
Pearn, who got into a shouting match post-Martinsville with Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, also shrugged it off.
“I don’t think that matters to me,” Pearn said. “(Logano’s team) did a great job. They haven’t quite had the speed they displayed (Sunday) all year. Credit to them. They went out and earned it. So they did a great job.”
So did Furniture Row Racing, which managed to soldier through the playoffs under the specter of the impending shutdown that was announced the week of the regular-season finale. Though Truex was winless over the final 10 races, he still managed five top-five finishes and came up just one position short of becoming the 16th driver with multiple championships (and first in eight years to win consecutive titles).
“I don’t know what else we could’ve done,” Truex said. “Honestly, we worked our guts out all weekend and just to get here. We shut a lot of people up and made them eat crow, and that felt good. To come here and almost upset the field and almost win it back to back was really awesome. I just wish that last caution hadn’t come out. Other than that, I don’t know what we could’ve done.”
Said Pearn: “I’m just super proud of our effort. Everybody and their brother wanted to write us off and say we couldn’t do it. And we just proved them all the hell wrong like we have all along. If that’s the way the 78’s got to go out on a style and performance like that, I’m good with it.”
It was a fitting end to a five-season run for Truex with the underdog team that he once described as a “bunch of misfits” that became one of stock-car racing’s most unlikely success stories while resurrecting a driver’s career.
“Best time of my life,” Truex said. “I don’t know what else to say. Those guys have been amazing. They’ve made me a superstar in NASCAR. I’m just very thankful for them all.”