If you’re a longtime NASCAR fan and it’s taken you a while to process the news that one of the best teams in the Cup Series is leaving, you’re not alone. The situation is unprecedented in modern NASCAR. Let’s try to go through Furniture Row Racing’s decision to shut down and figure out what happens next and what could be learned from it.
A brief history of Furniture Row
Furniture Row has competed in 440 races over the course of 14 Cup Series seasons. When the 2018 season concludes, the team will end its tenure with 451 Cup Series starts. The team is owned by Furniture Row owner Barney Visser. His company has self-sponsored the car for much of the
The first came in 2005. The car was driven by Jerry Robertson. He completed 51 laps after starting 43rd. He finished 41st.
FRR ran 19 races in each of 2006 and 2007. The team ran 33 races in 2008, a half season in 2009 and then moved to full-time competition for the final time in 2010 with Regan Smith as the team’s driver.
Smith got his first and only win in the Cup Series at Darlington in the spring of 2011. A year later Furniture Row had hired Kurt Busch for the last six races of the season. Busch drove for the team in 2013 and then left for Stewart-Haas Racing. With Michael Waltrip Racing folding and Martin Truex Jr. suddenly out of a ride, the marriage between the team and driver felt like one of necessity more than anything in the fall of 2013.
That feeling didn’t dissipate in 2014 when Truex had five top-10 finishes and was 24th in the standings. The team hired Cole Pearn as Truex’s crew chief in 2015 and things took off from there. Truex won at Pocono that season and has won 16 races in 97 races since the start of the 2016 season after starting to pay for a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing.
What the heck happened?
Furniture Row expanded to two cars for the 2017 season with Erik Jones as a teammate for Truex. He had sponsorship from 5-Hour Energy, which moved over from HScott Motorsports. When Jones left for Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the 2017 season the team decided to go back to one car.
By moving the 5-Hour sponsorship over to Truex’s car to go with the existing sponsorship from Bass Pro Shops and Auto Owner’s Insurance, the No. 78 car didn’t have to be sponsored by Furniture Row at all in 2018. It was the first time in the team’s history that the company didn’t self-sponsor the car at any point in the season.
5-Hour announced earlier in the summer that it was leaving NASCAR altogether. It couldn’t switch teams because it was locked into Furniture Row Racing. When it announced its move to the No. 77 car in the fall of 2016, Monster Energy hadn’t signed on as the Cup Series’ title sponsor yet. Monster’s arrival meant 5-Hour could stay in NASCAR — but only with Furniture Row.
You can understand that Visser wouldn’t want to self-sponsor the team after having a full season of funding in a series with ever-increasing costs. Especially after he suffered a heart attack near the end of the 2017 season. That heart attack meant he couldn’t be at Homestead to celebrate Truex’s title in person.
If 5-Hour stays, is the team around in 2018?
Probably. That doesn’t help anything now, however. And it’s not necessarily better to answer “yes” to that question than it is to answer “no.”
In a perfect world, the defending champion team shouldn’t be so reliant on a co-primary sponsor (5-Hour was basically a half sponsor of the team) to survive. There should be a way for a team to be financially viable — and reasonably competitive — with a half-season’s worth of sponsorship.
There should also be a company or five leaping at the chance to take the place of 5-Hour and be the co-primary sponsor for the defending champion. There wasn’t. That’s a massive sign.
Couple the sponsorship issue with the apparent rising costs of keeping that JGR alliance and possibly some other factors that we don’t know of and you have a team that announced it is exiting NASCAR nine months after winning the Cup Series title. Furniture Row Racing spent a lot of money throughout its existence in NASCAR. Speed costs money. And FRR has had a lot of speed recently. But shouldn’t there be a way to continue to be fast and survive without having to take out a loan?
So what the heck happens to Martin Truex Jr.?
As we mentioned yesterday, he’s suddenly the biggest free agent on the NASCAR market. Assuming he’s actually a free agent at the time you’re reading this. Numerous reports have suggested that Truex could head to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2019 and drive the No. 19 car. That means Daniel Suarez would be out of a ride. With Leavine Family Racing looking like it’ll switch to Toyota and needing a driver after Kasey Kahne’s retirement, the popular guess is that Suarez will head to the No. 95 in 2019 to make way for Truex.
Nothing has been confirmed or announced.
Truex’s move will likely cause the other pieces for 2019 to start to fall into place. Kurt Busch is a free agent at the end of the season and could find a new team instead of re-signing with Stewart-Haas Racing again. Busch was the biggest free agent on the market before Truex suddenly became available. Especially given his relationship with Pearn. Truex’s future team would be foolish to not do everything it could to bring Pearn along with him.
It’s also worth noting that all of the people at the Furniture Row shop will have to find new jobs. And move halfway across the country if they want to keep working in NASCAR. The Colorado-based team is the only Cup Series team that isn’t located near Charlotte.
So what the heck happens to Furniture Row’s charter?
Do you want to buy it?
NASCAR’s charter system has been nothing like it was touted to be when it was introduced in 2016. That isn’t entirely the system’s fault. But the success of the system was predicated on the principle of supply and demand. There has been no demand. And there’s an ever-growing level of supply.
A charter guarantees a team entry into every Cup Series race. There are 36 charters available. And a lot could be had for a low price if you wanted to field a Cup Series team in 2019.
Furniture Row’s charter is just one of a host of charters that will be available and need to change hands at the end of the season. Richard Childress Racing has three charters and fields two cars. Richard Petty Motorsports has two charters and fields one car. Front Row Motorsports now has four charters and fields three cars with its recent acquisition of BK Racing.
The charters that aren’t being used by their owners are currently being leased this season. Charters can only be leased to a team for one season before they’re returned back to their owners who have to use them or sell them. You can have a charter for pretty cheap if you want to field a Cup Series team. Can I crew chief for you?
What does this say about NASCAR?
A lot. None of them are good.
• It says that the financial model for competitive teams is broken. Teams who want to be fast either have to run on the razor’s edge of profitability or have business-to-business relationships like Rick Hendrick and Roger Penske to help with sponsorship for their Cup teams. Or, in the case of Gene Haas — a man much like Visser has been — be willing to put your own company’s name on your cars.
Discussions about a cost cap are worthy ones even if a cost cap structure in racing would be impossible to implement. Figuring out ways to cut costs for teams as sponsorship revenue declines should be the top priority for the sanctioning body. NASCAR has taken small steps in that direction with composite bodies in lower series and tire limits, but it’s also increased costs for teams in the Cup Series with changes to the specifications of cars.
• It says that comments made by NASCAR COO Steve Phelps at Pocono in July have gone from terrible to worse. Phelps tried to say that it was a “misconception” that sponsorship in NASCAR was not going well.
It was a ridiculous assertion at the time. It’s even more ridiculous now. But hey, NASCAR did sign a company to be the official grill of the series just days before Furniture Row said it was closing its doors.
• It says that the competitive size of the Cup Series field is shrinking. A backmarker car may come along to fill the spot vacated by the No. 78 car in 2019 but it’s not going to have a snowball’s chance in hell of being any good. That’s terrible news for fans, even if you’re one of the people who thinks the 2018 victory lane domination by Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex isn’t great for competition.
It says that tracks and NASCAR continue to have the upper hand when it comes to the distribution of revenue from NASCAR’s gargantuan TV contract.
Since 2013, $658 million has or will be spent on renovations to just four of NASCAR's tracks:
Daytona: $400 million
Phoenix: $178 million
Talladega: $50 million
Richmond: $30 million
— Geoffrey Miller (@GeoffreyMiller) September 4, 2018
All four of those tracks are owned by International Speedway Corp., a publicly-held company chaired by Lesa France Kennedy, the sister to NASCAR CEO Brian France (currently on a leave of absence) and the niece to interim NASCAR CEO Jim France.
A fortieth of what Daytona spent on its renovations would have gone a long way to keeping Furniture Row afloat in 2018. What good is a nice track if the teams that use it struggle to stay alive?
We’ll see if teams can make some more headway when it comes to getting a bigger piece of the revenue pie. Given that both ISC and Speedway Motorsports Inc. answer to shareholders, it may be a gargantuan task.
• It says that this is a continuation of a pattern of disappearing teams. When the 2019 season begins, 11 cars that started the 2014 Daytona 500 will have been fielded by teams that no longer exist. Furniture Row is simply the biggest team in recent years to have to close its doors.
There will always be teams that come and go in NASCAR just like businesses open and close all around your neighborhood and city. But there shouldn’t be this level of turnover in NASCAR’s top series. Tuesday should be a day of reckoning for anyone who pays attention to the sport. Things aren’t going very well. They haven’t been going very well for some time. And they may only be getting worse.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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