Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Adversity, Tragedy, Perseverance, Triumph: The Story of Furniture Row Racing and Martin Truex, Jr.’s Championship Run

Posted on 20 November 2017 by James Pike
The first Canadian crew chief and first New Jersey-born driver to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title had a lot to smile about after last night. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Adversity, vanquished.

That was the story on Sunday night, as Martin Truex, Jr. held off Kyle Busch in the final 40 laps of the Ford EcoBoost 400 to win the race and win the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

As always with a title of this scope and magnitude, it was the culmination of a career’s worth of work for Truex and everyone involved with the Furniture Row Racing team. But their tale differs from most of a similar nature.

The story of Furniture Row Racing begins in 2005, when Denver, Colorado native Barney Visser took his passion for racing and turned it into a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team. From the beginning, Visser made a decision to make his team different from the rest. Instead of building a shop and running it out of the Charlotte, North Carolina area, as so many teams in NASCAR do, Visser took one of his old waterbed stores outside of Denver and turned that into their race shop.

It went completely against convention – all of the suppliers that support the teams and the infrastructure were in the Charlotte area, and no one had ever attempted to run a team over 3,000 kilometres from the sport’s epicentre. Running out of Colorado would also increase the travel times and distance for the team, since the sport was still predominantly based on the east coast. But Visser wanted to be able to run the team and stay close to friends and family in the Denver area, so they set up at the foot of the Rockies.

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As seemed to be the case with so many Cup teams founded in that era, the first few seasons for Furniture Row were difficult. Between the 2006 and 2007 seasons, seven drivers piloted the No. 78, and the team failed to qualify for almost half of the races they entered.

Life got even harder for them in 2009, when the worldwide economic recession forced them to run 20 of the 36 races that season. But there was one positive that also arrived that year: driver Regan Smith.

Smith cut down on the number of races that the team didn’t qualify for (2), and stuck around when Visser and FRR leadership formed an alliance with Richard Childress Racing for 2010. The alliance gave the team access to RCR’s deeper pool of resources and knowledge, and this allowed them to qualify for all 36 races for the first time.

One year later, Smith delivered the first race win for the No. 78 at the Southern 500 in Darlington. Smith’s performances through 2011 and 2012 were enough to convince 2004 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Kurt Busch to sign on with the team for the 2013 season.

The team and driver pairing made for an interesting combination, to say the least. Busch was busy rebuilding his career after a string of outbursts at drivers, reporters, and NASCAR officials cost him his seat at Team Penske after the 2011 season. He had spent 2012 driving for Phoenix Racing at the very bottom of the Cup Series. For him, Furniture Row was the next step up.

For the team, landing a former champion like Busch to drive their car was the best situation they could have imagined. Rare is it in NASCAR to have driver of Busch’s calibre available for a mid-tier ride like the No. 78 was at the time, and they pounced on the opportunity. It was a large step in the team’s long rise to success.

In 2013, Busch delivered the first playoff berth for Furniture Row, in what was their best season to date. But he moved on for 2014, accepting an offer to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

This sent the team searching for another driver once again. The names bandied about for the No. 78 at the time included former Formula 1 star Juan Pablo Montoya, former Cup champion Bobby Labonte, and former Roush Racing favourite Jeff Burton.

All of the above had shown talent once upon a time, but they were all a bit old and past their prime in 2013. None of them would have performed on Busch’s level.

Little did Furniture Row Racing know that they were about to have their biggest present yet gift-wrapped to them.

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By 2013, Martin Truex, Jr. had established himself as a NASCAR veteran. He had worked his way through the XFINITY Series as the 2005 champion, then found a home with Chip Ganassi.

The 2013 season was on track to be his best yet. Now in his third season with Toyota’s Michael Waltrip Racing, he had won a race for the first time in seven years, and was on the edge of a playoff berth going into the final regular season race at Richmond.

The race for the final playoff berth was close between Truex and Ryan Newman, and both drivers were within a handful of points throughout the night. But with 10 laps to go, Newman held the advantage.

Had the race finished under green, Truex would have missed the playoffs. But Michael Waltrip Racing had a plan. With seven laps to go, MWR Competition Director Ty Norris asked Truex’s teammate, Clint Bowyer, to intentionally spin out and cause a caution. Executed correctly, Truex could pit, regroup, and make one final charge.

Bowyer did his part, and the pit stop was enough for Truex to climb to seventh and beat Newman for the final playoff spot. But no sooner had the chequered flag fallen before allegations of race-fixing rose.

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NASCAR investigated the matter, and by that Monday delivered their verdict. MWR was found guilty, and received the stiffest competition penalties ever handed down to a team: $300,000 in fines, an indefinite suspension for Norris, and a 50-point penalty to Bowyer and Truex each.

The penalty knocked Truex out of the playoffs. Matters were made even worse a week later when his primary sponsor, NAPA, announced that it was leaving Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the season because of “Spingate”. Truex was told that he was free to look for other rides for 2014.

In fairness to Truex, he had nothing to do with the scandal: all of the decisions that earned the penalties were made away from him, and he was just told to race as hard as he could. But one month after he was gearing up for a potential playoff run, Truex had to start all over again.

However, his misfortune became Furniture Row Racing’s greatest luck. The team knew that Truex was easily the best driver available for 2014, and recognised that he was mere collateral damage in a terrible situation. They worked quickly to sign him, and Truex joined them for 2014.

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But their first season together did not go to plan: Truex had only one top-five and led a single lap throughout all of 2014. On top of it all, Truex’s long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer in August of that year. Doctors placed her chances of survival beyond five years at 30 percent. It was a rough season all around, and changes clearly needed to be made.

For Truex, change would come in the form of Canadian Cole Pearn, who was promoted to Crew Chief for the 2015 season. With Pearn on top of the pit box, things finally began to click again. Truex brought Furniture Row to Victory Lane for the first time in six seasons with a Pocono win in June. That win brought Truex to the playoffs for the first time, where he made a surprising run to the Championship 4 in Homestead before falling short.

It wasn’t entirely the season that they wanted, but Martin spent the year fighting for both his team and his girlfriend, who spent all of 2015 in chemotherapy. Yet through the turmoil, Furniture Row knew bigger things were on the horizon.

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For 2016, they switched alliances from Richard Childress Racing and Chevrolet to Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. Having finally established themselves as a top-tier Cup team, this move gave Furniture Row access to even deeper pockets of resources. It was an easy decision for Toyota as well, since they had grown fond of Truex when he was racing for Waltrip, and were eager to have him back in their fold.

The following season almost started perfectly. Pollex announced that her cancer was in remission in January, and Truex nearly won the Daytona 500 in his first race back with Toyota, losing out by one-thousandth of a second to fellow Toyota driver Denny Hamlin. He rebounded in May at the Coca-Cola 600, leading a race-record 392 of 400 laps en route to victory. This was followed by victories in September’s Southern 500 at Darlington, and playoff wins at Chicago and Dover. Entering October, they were favourites to win the championship.

Then Talladega came, and a blown motor 41 laps into the race meant that Truex was out of the playoffs with four races to spare. It was a cruel gut punch to a team that had easily been in position to advance on points, and there was nothing that could be done about it.

It did not take long before their focus was regrouped and reset: come back in 2017, and win the title that arguably should have been theirs.

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Three races. That’s all it took for Truex to find Victory Lane in 2017, as he started off his campaign with a win at Las Vegas in which he swept all three of NASCAR’s new “race stages”. That was followed with another win at Kansas in May. It was a relatively clean season until June, when adversity began to strike.

That month ended on stumbling blocks, with Truex failing to finish at Sonoma. July’s start wasn’t any better, with the No. 78 crashing out of the Independence Day weekend race at Daytona.

Harrowing news followed when Pollex found out that her cancer had returned. Things looked like they were turning south for Truex and the No. 78 team quickly.

So Truex and company doubled down to find the best panacea in NASCAR: winning.

The week that Pollex’ cancer returned, Truex led 152 of 267 laps to win at Kentucky. He came into Victory Lane that night with the teal ribbon for ovarian cancer awareness emblazoned on his driving gloves and steering wheel (an adapted version has become the symbol for Truex’s foundation).

That night set a theme for the rest of Furniture Row’s 2017: anytime adversity hit them, they would hit back by winning.

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The annual trip to Watkins Glen, New York offered the next example. On the Thursday before the race, Cole Pearn’s childhood best friend died from a bacterial infection at age 35. Truex responded by charging through the field to take the lead with three laps to go and win the final road course race of the season.

It was an emotional scene in Victory Lane for Pearn, who could barely keep himself composed. But as had become custom, the support from everyone at the team was clear.

A month later, Truex had victory No. 5 in his hands after rebounding from a loose wheel and a pit road speeding penalty to win the playoff opener at Chicago. In October, tragedy struck Furniture Row again as team fabricator Jim Watson died of a heart attack the day before the race at Kansas.

The team spent much of that Saturday night in the hospital dealing with the grief before returning to the track the next day – and winning, again.

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Even yesterday, at Homestead-Miami, had its hardships. Barney Visser was unable to be at the race, as he was recuperating from bypass surgery performed after a November 4th heart attack.

The response from Furniture Row was obvious: win.

If yesterday was different from the other Furniture Row rebound stories of 2017, it was because unlike the other races, Truex and Furniture Row were not the fastest team.

That honour went to the No. 18 of Kyle Busch, who had been dominant once the sun set, especially on long-green flag runs. When he made his final pit stop with 51 laps to go, it almost seemed destined that Busch would run back up and past the other championship contenders for his second career crown.

Before he could, the caution came out on lap 228 for Kurt Busch’s crash. This gave everyone the chance to come back down pit road for fresh tyres, and reset the field for a 34-lap run to the finish.

Truex had the lead on the restart, but was holding off all challengers as the laps clicked off – first Kevin Harvick, and then Kyle Busch, who had come from fourth to second in sixteen laps. Busch was eating away at Truex’s lead to the tune of two-tenths a second per lap.

In the last-gasp effort to slow down Busch, Truex moved from the centre of the track up to the wall to find speed. Traditionally, the wall is where cars are fastest at Homestead, but that had not been the case for Truex all race long.

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Until now, naturally. The shift up top brought Truex right into Busch’s lane and prevented the No. 18 from getting the run necessary to pass for the lead. Busch fought as hard as he could, but it was Truex who held on to win the race and the title.

It was a long-awaited moment of triumph for everyone at Furniture Row Racing. Celebrations were rightfully rowdy on top of the pit box, and outside of Visser, the entire organisation was present.

That included Pollex, who had not been present at all of the races this season while she fought the recurrence of cancer, but was present last night. In the course of this season, both she and Truex have become inseparable symbols of perseverance and resilience. Their identity has become so intertwined that they are constantly around each other at the track, and they have become a favourite couple of the NASCAR world as a result of their hard work.

For her, last night’s success was all about attitude. “Everybody is battling something, everybody is fighting something in their life, not just cancer but any kind of struggle that they’re going through in their life”, she said. “We always say if you can fight a struggle with a positive attitude and just have a smile on your face and find the good and the silver lining in everything, in the end you’ll come out and karma will pay you back and good things will happen to you”.

For Truex, it was all about the culmination. I don’t even know. I was a mess. I didn’t know – I couldn’t even talk”, he said. I was a wreck thinking about all the tough days, the bad days, the times where I thought my career was over with, the times when I didn’t think anyone believed in me, but the guys, the people who mattered did, my fans, my family, and then when I got with this team. They’re unbelievable, and they resurrected my career and made me a champion. I don’t know what to say”.

Truex is the 32nd driver all-time and first New Jersey native to become a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, while Pearn becomes the first Canadian crew chief to win the title.

For Furniture Row, it is the completion of a journey that began as one of the many also-rans who littered NASCAR in the mid-2000s. Few would have believed that in 12 years, they would become champions of the sport.

In the end, it has all come down to the people of Furniture Row Racing. They have worked tirelessly against odds from all over the place to make it here, and now, NASCAR’s outsiders from Colorado are finally inside a group of very elite company.

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