Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 23, 2017

An Improbable Champion, An Uncertain Future

A NOTE TO READERS: As Thanksgiving winds down, I hope everyone has enjoyed a very happy holiday, filled with lots of laughter and minimal drama. Thanks as always for your support.

NASCAR’s 2017 season came to an end last weekend. When he sped past the checkered flag Sunday evening to win the Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway, Martin Truex, Jr. won his first Monster Energy Cup Series championship. For the 37-year old New Jersey native, it was the capstone to a wildly successful season, one that far surpassed anything that had gone before during his fourteen years of driving in stock car racing’s premier series.

As the field took the green flag at the Daytona 500 to start the season nine months ago, Truex was just one more journeyman driver. He started that race in 35th position and ran well enough, finishing 13th. It was a predictable result for a driver who began 2017 with seven wins and one hundred thirty-five top-ten finishes in four hundred and five career races. A strong race one time in three, a checkered flag every other year; the statistics of a good but not great NASCAR driver. But just two races later Truex won the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and when he came home first in Miami it was his 8th win and 25th top-ten finish over the course of NASCAR’s thirty-six race calendar.

Truex’s year is even more amazing given his ride. He drives the number 78 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing, a tiny iconoclast among race teams. FRR is owned by Barney Visser, an entrepreneur who started out selling pillows in the 1970s, moved on to waterbeds in the 80s and then to all manner of bedroom furniture under various retail names. By the time Visser retired to pursue his interest in stock cars, his company Furniture Row operated more than three hundred stores.

Visser based Furniture Row Racing in his home state of Colorado, making it one of just a handful of teams not headquartered in North Carolina, and the only one based west of the Mississippi. He quickly discovered that racing is an extraordinarily expensive business. FRR has never managed to field more than two cars in NASCAR’s highest series, and most years only one. After losing his ride with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2013, Truex signed on to drive the 78 beginning the following year.

This year Truex had to overcome adversity that went far beyond the limited resources of FRR. Even as he piled up wins throughout the season, his thoughts were with his fiancée Sherry Pollex, who is battling ovarian cancer. Then in October crew member Jim Watson passed away, and just weeks later Visser suffered a heart attack that kept him away from the track for the season’s final two races. Somehow Truex managed to remain focused and even draw motivation from the blows. He readily admits that the strength which Pollex has shown in her medical battle has inspired him.

Truex also had the good fortune to be driving a Toyota. It’s been a decade since the Japanese manufacturer began running in NASCAR’s top series, joining Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge. The Chrysler nameplate dropped out after the 2012 season, even as Chevy dominated on the race track. The manufacturer’s title went to the General Motors division every year from 2003 through 2014. But the last two years have seen Toyota dominate. At the midpoint of this season’s schedule, Truex’s three wins were the only victories by a Toyota in the eighteen races. But then the company’s engineers found some magic. Toyotas won thirteen of the last eighteen races, including eight of the ten in the season-ending Chase for the Championship – four by Truex, three by Kyle Busch and one by Matt Kenseth.

Truex’s unlikely title for Barney Visser’s shop is a fairy tale come true, one that the NASCAR marketing folks will no doubt focus on as the sport enters its offseason. That’s because the other main storylines about NASCAR are decidedly less positive. Even as the number 78 team was celebrating, the Monster Energy Cup Series was facing a winter of discontent and doubt.

The sport’s two most popular drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick, are leaving. Earnhardt announced his decision to retire last April, and Patrick lost her ride with Stewart-Haas Racing when owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas were unable to secure adequate sponsorship for her. Just before the race at Homestead, Patrick announced that she would close her competitive career by running in next year’s Daytona 500 for NASCAR and the Indianapolis 500 for IndyCar. It will be a fitting finale for the most prominent woman driver in both series, but without the benefit of a regular ride no fan should think that her two appearances next season will be anything other than ceremonial.

Earnhardt and Patrick aren’t the only known stars to depart. The 2000 Rookie of the Year and 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth, like Patrick, was essentially forced into retirement when no owner could offer him the resources to field a competitive car. The tightening economics of the sport sidelined Greg Biffle this year, and as yet he has no sure route to returning. Kurt Busch, winner of this year’s Daytona 500 and the Cup champion in 2004, is not yet certain of continuing as a driver for Stewart-Haas, and Kasey Kahne is moving from the luxury of giant Hendrick Motorsports to the one car team of Leavine Family Racing.

All this after the recent retirements of fan favorites Stewart, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon leaves many fans without a driver on whom to pin their hopes week in and week out. Not surprisingly, attendance continues to decline at virtually every venue, along with NASCAR’s television ratings. Budgets are being slashed by both big teams and small, often by as much as fifty percent. Even with that owners are left trying to cobble together full season support by rotating multiple sponsors, where in the past one company would gladly finance a season in return for its logo on the race car’s hood.

Brian France, chief executive of what remains a family owned business, acknowledged the challenges NASCAR faces in a press conference before the season ending race last weekend. He is pinning his hopes on a new generation of drivers, most of whom are barely old enough to legally buy the liquor that the sport’s forebears ran through the Carolina mountains decades ago.

It is true in every sport that old heroes leave the stage, making way for new ones to step into the spotlight. Perhaps NASCAR fans will soon be roaring their approval for the driving of Chase Elliott or Erik Jones, Ty Dillon or Daniel Suarez, Chris Buescher or Ryan Blaney. But even France admitted that the breadth of this transition puts his sport at a turning point. Add to that the profound economic challenges facing NASCAR, and racing fans know that not even the feel-good story of Martin Truex Jr’s. improbable run to a championship can entirely remove the pall of uncertainty hanging over this offseason.

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Responses

  1. Very informative, Mike. It’s interesting how business and the marketplace influence how many—and particularly which—drivers get to participate in racing.

    Perhaps NASCAR needs to expand it’s business model and have an Alternate Circuit (AC) Direct to Consumers (DC) racing electric cars around an oval track.

    Have a safe weekend,
    Ω

    • An excellent idea Allan! I’m passing this along to NASCAR’s headquarters in Daytona Beach. I’m sure Brian France will get right on it!!

      Thanks,
      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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