Martin Truex Jr. has finally broken away from the nightmare that was the last 11 races of the 2013 season.
“It was like getting punched in the face. You didn’t see it coming,” Truex says of the ordeal last year. “It came out of nowhere.”
That punch was the self-poisoning of Michael Waltrip Racing in the name of earning Truex a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup during the Richmond regular-season finale last fall. Late in the race, the team orchestrated a plot that featured an intentional Clint Bowyer spin to cause a yellow and a slowed Brian Vickers to help earn him points. The scheming worked originally — Truex qualified for the Chase that night — but then fell apart in a heap of smoldering debris when further investigation from NASCAR resulted in scorching penalties.
The team lost $300,000 in fines immediately. Truex, seemingly unaware of the events, was booted from the Chase. And just a few weeks later, primary backer NAPA — one of the last remaining full-season sponsors in the sport — let its displeasure be known as it dropped support of the team after 2013.
Talk about a roller coaster of emotions. Truex was a free agent for 2014 just weeks after he was seemingly on his way to being a Chase entrant for the second straight year. With the news coming late in Silly Season, options were few and far between.
Truex, though, has landed on his feet thanks in large part to Kurt Busch and Gene Haas (co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing) striking an unexpected deal last fall. Busch bolted to the multi-car team after a one-and-done year in the Furniture Row Racing No. 78. It was a somewhat unexpected opening of a Sprint Cup seat and one that came later in the season than the sport has seen in recent years.
Just like that, a Cup career was saved. But to hear Truex tell it, the opportunity has some unexpected benefits that Michael Waltrip’s team couldn’t provide. First and foremost: Fast race cars are the priority for team owner Barney Visser.
“Barney says if it makes the car go faster, we get it. Those are the types of things as a race car driver that you look for,” Truex said in November before taking a subtle swipe at MWR. “As much as it sounds crazy, but fan experiences, shop tours and all those kinds of things don’t make cars faster. These guys are 100 percent focused on making race cars faster.”
Truex took the job essentially sight unseen — he never even traveled to the team’s unusual race shop location near Denver before signing the two-year contract — but he’s spot-on in his assessment of what FRR cares about. Visser, the owner, is also the sponsor and uses the race team as a marketing vehicle for his chain of Furniture Row stores. The best marketing? Well, that happens when you’re up front. Busch drove the team to higher levels than ever before last season with his unexpected berth in the Chase, and you can bet Visser will be expecting similar results from Truex.
Can he do it? The move results in a major test, considering how Busch was able to take the car from previous driver Regan Smith and show substantially improved results right away. How quickly Truex adjusts may be one of the more interesting sub-topics throughout the season.
Fortunately, FRR is maintaining a critical piece of its success from last season: its technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing. The agreement basically allowed FRR to operate as a fourth RCR team at the track — Busch and FRR officials meet with RCR drivers and officials each weekend to share data.
In September, Mark McArdle — FRR’s Executive Director of Competition — was named RCR’s Director of Racing Operations, further cementing the relationship between the two operations.
The agreement works surprisingly well for FRR because, as Truex says, the team doesn’t have the red tape that a traditional multi-car operation might have.
“When they want to build a part and put it on the race car, they do it,” Truex says. “There is no five, six weeks of going through a system to get it on the race car. I think that, from a technology standpoint, it’s a great thing.”
Still, the challenge remains steep. Truex must beat more competition — Busch figures to be a Chase contender, Denny Hamlin shouldn’t miss more time, Tony Stewart will return and Brad Keselowski figures to improve — while establishing himself with a new team. Expect him to be competitive, but that’s a lot of talent to beat that wasn’t around in 2013.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
It’s a new year with new surroundings for New Jersey native Martin Truex Jr.
“Truex is jumping into a Chase car, and he no longer has to deal with Michael Waltrip,” one crew chief says. “Furniture Row’s alliance with Richard Childress gives him better engineering and technical support than he had at MWR, and the relationship still gives him teammates to lean on. Plus, he doesn’t have to appear in any stupid commercials. Now he’s out to prove that he really deserved to have made the Chase last season.”
“Funny, he’s already becoming an elder statesman in the sport and only has two wins,” another crew chief says. “Truthfully, he’s just not as good as other drivers. He’ll battle expectations after what Kurt Busch did in the car, too. And while the relationship with Childress is a plus, FRR doesn’t get the brand new technology simply because they’re a satellite team.”
“Furniture Row is paying RCR handsomely for the assistance, and they proved last year that with the right driver, that can be money well spent,” a media member observes. “Still, Kurt Busch didn’t win with it, so it’s hard to imagine Truex jumping in and raising the level of performance.”
Looking at Checkers: There’s a chance, sure, but Kurt Busch wasn’t able to secure the victory many were predicting, and he’s the better wheelman.
Pretty Solid Pick: Five top 10s in six CoT/Gen-6 era races at Homestead-Miami Speedway is an encouraging stat.
Good Sleeper Pick: Most places, notably Texas, Phoenix and the road courses.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Despite his DEI pedigree, Truex has never been a masterful plate racer.
Insider Tip: The Furniture Row-Truex match is a comfortable one, but it may resemble the Regan Smith years more than the Busch year. Don’t misinterpret: There is potential for some wins over the next few seasons; just don’t expect those wins to come in bundles.
No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet
Sponsors: Furniture Row
Owner: Barney Visser
Crew Chief: Todd Berrier
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 11th (2007, ’12)
Hometown: Mayetta, N.J.
Born: June 29, 1980
Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Truex courtesy of Furniture Row Racing.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro