Furniture Row Racing No. 78
Martin Truex Jr. is in new territory, fresh off a 2016 season that was easily his best yet. He reached career highs in wins (four), poles (five) and top-5 finishes (eight). There were a series-best 1,809 laps led. And he was a legitimate championship favorite right until his Toyota engine expired unexpectedly at Talladega Superspeedway in the postseason’s second round.
So what’s next?
“We’re going to win it all next year,” said Truex, smiling and jovial at the end of last season. “Eight wins, 10 poles and a championship. So that’s your story for (this) year.”
Truex is happy, if you couldn’t tell. No, he’s not actually calling his shot for this season. But those numbers and that result? It no longer seems far-fetched. The once-questioned business model of his Denver-based Furniture Row Racing team has solidified thanks to its lockstep partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing. Truex, for all intents and purposes, drives a fifth car for NASCAR’s top Toyota team but has the benefits of working in the environment of an independent organization.
“I’m having so much fun with this team right now. What we’re doing, it’s been a dream come true,” Truex says. “The situation we’re in, the people we have. I’ve just enjoyed the heck out of it. I think, even as good as it was, we could have done better, and what we’re looking at doing is improving.”
Improvement for Truex will come in converting more opportunities to strong finishes and wins. Truex’s average finish last season was more than four spots lower than his average running position, a count that was the worst among all competitors. Attribute some of that to bad luck — it’s easy to remember Truex’s top-5 run at the Homestead-Miami Speedway season finale ending with his Toyota ablaze in Turn 2 after getting caught in an unavoidable crash — and some to team mistakes. Truex also suffered in-race penalties more often than he would like, and he was particularly vocal about what he felt was uneven enforcement after races at Kentucky Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.
After the Kentucky incident — Truex felt he had a winning opportunity stolen when NASCAR cited a rarely enforced rule and judged that he passed a competitor on pit road — he vowed to discuss the enforcement with series officials. The conversation, Truex says, didn’t bring any notable policy shift. “If you’re going to call rules, that’s fine, but don’t just pick a time, choose your times to call them,” Truex says.
The FRR stable will grow next season with the addition of JGR developmental driver Erik Jones. Jones’ arrival and the accompanying ramp-up of the FRR shop promises to be the most significant hurdle of the offseason. Everything about the expansion is a little tougher compared to most North Carolina-based NASCAR teams, with the chief concern finding the right new employees who often must relocate to Colorado.
Truex isn’t worried that Jones’ addition will be a distraction to his performance. The information sharing with JGR and the incredible success that it brought last year in only the first season of that relationship is enough to lay those worries aside. “I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal, at least that’s what I’m telling myself,” Truex says. “Toyota’s got a lot of experience (with expansion).”
Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, and the No. 78 team’s engineers have also played a role in selecting the team that will work on Jones’ No. 77, a process that Truex says will keep the move from “upsetting the applecart” of team dynamics.
After his most successful Cup season to date, Truex is guaranteed to see countless replays of the 2016 Daytona 500 finish before the season opens. Truex lost last year to Denny Hamlin by inches. But he’s not that bothered by it. “I’ll tell you one thing,” Truex says. “It was better than finishing third.”