Truex set to defend championship, send FRR out a winner

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Win or lose, Martin Truex Jr. will be at the center of a goodbye bash that no one at Furniture Row Racing will want to end. Truex will pop open some beers, huddle with friends and reminisce a final time about the team’s wild ride from obscurity to greatness.

It’s last call for FRR — and there’s still a chance to go out on top , leaving the location for Truex’s party still to be determined.

“Hopefully, it’s up on stage with a big trophy,” Truex said.

Furniture Row Racing, a one-car operation based in Denver, Colorado, far removed from NASCAR’s North Carolina roots, will shutter its doors after a 14-year run in which it morphed from an underfunded backmarker to NASCAR champion with Truex behind the wheel.

Don’t lock the doors on the shop just yet.

Truex can still deliver one heck of a parting gift with a second straight Cup Series championship on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“It’s been, as far as racing goes, by far, the time of my life,” Truex said. “I’ve realized dreams I’ve had since I was a kid because of this group and this team and what we’ve done.”

Truex and FRR accomplished what no other single-car team has done in the current championship format and went head-to-head and beat the heavyweight teams owned by Tony Stewart, Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick. Truex and FRR forged a hasty relationship born by necessity, and it soon turned into a fruitful partnership both sides wanted to continue while chasing championships well into the future.

But once 5-hour Energy, which plans to leave NASCAR at the end of the season, pulled its funding from the No. 78 Toyota, and no other sponsorship could be secured, owner Barney Visser pulled the plug on the organization.

“It’s hard to give it up, but sometimes it’s taken away from you without having any recourse,” said Visser, who largely funded the operation out of pocket since its 2005 inception. “I just couldn’t keep borrowing money over here to feed it over there. Just had to give it up.”

FRR employees, including crew chief Cole Pearn, choked back tears at the shop this week when the Toyota was loaded into the hauler and hit the road for the last time. They hugged, snapped group photos and filmed the hauler as it started the 2,100-mile ride to Homestead.

“I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional it was when we loaded up,” Pearn said. “I think we’ve just been head down, kind of pushing super hard, trying to do everything we can to get ready for this weekend.”

The 38-year-old Truex landed quite the golden parachute and signed with Joe Gibbs Racing, home to fellow championship contender Kyle Busch, and Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin. Truex spent four of his five seasons as the lone driver at FRR.

“It’s been really, really, really fun to be a part of this team and kind of be just out there as an outcast,” Truex said.

It seemed implausible in 2014 that the relationship between Truex and FRR would blossom into perennial championship contenders.

Furniture Row spent its formative years fielding cars for veteran drivers at the end of their careers and failed to even qualify for scores of races. Regan Smith had the organization’s lone win in 2011. It also served as a one-season landing spot for Kurt Busch as he tried to rebuild his career.

Truex had only two Cup wins in eight seasons, and his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing blew up in the wake of a cheating scandal.

Their first season was a bust: Truex led only one lap in 2014 and finished a career-worst 24th in the standings. Had FRR folded at the end at that season, the organization would be a blip in NASCAR history.

What happened next was perhaps the most unprecedented career rebirth in NASCAR history. Truex was paired with Pearn in 2015, and they ran for the title at Homestead. Truex won four times in 2016 and doubled that last season en route to his first NASCAR Cup championship.

“It all fell in place, and we got the right group of guys together that were hungry and determined,” Truex said. “Barney gave us everything we needed to be successful.”

Pearn, the T-shirt wearing Canadian, made all the right calls on the pit box while Visser, the family-owned home furnishing magnate, pumped millions into the team and linked with Toyota to create a winner. FRR President Joe Garone was the steady leader for 60-plus employees.

“It’s been brutal at the end here,” Garone said.

They shared in triumphs — 17 wins and three championship berths — and tough times. Truex stood by long-time girlfriend Sherry Pollex during her fight with ovarian cancer . The 69-year-old Visser suffered a heart attack last season and missed Truex’s title-clinching race and the championship celebration. And once sponsorship dried up, Visser made the call with just 11 races remaining in the season to fold up shop.

“After the news came out when it did, it was probably rough there for the first few weeks,” Pearn said. “I think as people started to figure things out, it settled in a bit. We kind of were able to refocus and be able to close this thing out on a high note.”

Truex and Pearn are taking over the No. 19 Toyota at JGR next season (Daniel Suarez is out), and Garone said 41 of 63 employees have found work with other NASCAR teams or with one of Visser’s other businesses.

While NASCAR salaries aren’t public, Truex is expected to finally command the type of money commensurate to his credentials.

“Martin has been very good to us. He always drove for less money than what other teams were paying and brought us a championship,” Visser said.

Truex said: “I had to do it because it was really the only option. I wanted to stay at that team. I knew what we could accomplish together, and I was willing to take the hit to have the success.”

Truex won four times this season and has to beat Busch, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano to become the 16th driver in Cup history to win multiple championships. Truex, who won back-to-back Xfinity Series titles, is trying to keep his emotions in check and bring home the checkered flag.

Then it’s time to say goodbye to NASCAR’s tiny team that became a respected champion.

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