Martin Truex, Jr. is pretty much the king of the hill in NASCAR this season. He leads driver points by 48 markers, is tied with Jimmie Johnson for the most wins in the Cup Series this season and has 14 stage wins. That’s double the number of Kyle Busch, who’s second on that list with seven and miles ahead of anyone else. Right now, he’s a top title favorite, his Furniture Row Racing team among the best of NASCAR’s most elite teams.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Furniture Row Racing ran its first full season of Cup Series competition in 2006. Drivers Joe Nemechek and Kenny Wallace ran a combined 19 races for FRR… and failed to qualify for 17. There were another 15 DNQs in 2007 and six in 2008. It got so difficult for team owner Barney Visser that he scaled back to part time the following year.
Things got better slowly, the way it usually goes with a small team at NASCAR’s top level. There was even a win in 2011, but overall, it was slow going, average finishes stuck in the mid 20s.
Then in 2013, the game changed. Furniture Row Racing worked out a team alliance with Richard Childress Racing, took a chance on beleaguered driver Kurt Busch and put up 11 top-five finishes (still the most in a single season in team history) and a top-10 points finish.
When Truex came on board in 2014, there was a bit of a backslide, but RCR wasn’t exactly lighting the sport on fire, either. FRR rebounded to win a race the following year and made the playoffs before changing their alliance to Joe Gibbs Racing as a factory-supporter Toyota entry.
And that’s where things really took off. Truex won four races in 2016 and is putting on a show this year. And he has the alliances the team formed to thank for that.
Other small teams have formed alliances with RCR since FRR in 2013; currently JTG Daugherty Racing, Germain Racing and Leavine Family Racing all share information with RCR and all three teams have shown significant improvement, though they don’t have the factory backing necessary to be competitive weekly. Wood Brothers Racing has visited Victory Lane this year in part thanks to an alliance wit Team Penske.
And alliances don’t just benefit the small teams. JGR, Team Penske and RCR all get information from them, adding to their information bank. Driver development is also a perk, as Team Penske was able to keep Ryan Blaney in the pipeline until they could secure sponsorship for him. Roush Fenway prospect Chris Buescher won at Pocono last year for Front Row Motorsports on an alliance.
So what’s the downside?
For one, many teams are still limited by a couple of things: budget and a lack of factory backing. While neither is the case for Furniture Row Racing, for the three current RCR satellite teams, factory backing is something they don’t have. RCR is a Chevrolet-backed team, but that doesn’t trickle down to the satellites. Couple that with a lack of overall resources, and information sharing only goes so far. Depending on teams and the nature of alliances, the satellite operations may or may not be included in team meetings with the parent team, and that collaboration is crucial.
That aside, though, are there control issues? What if the satellite outperforms the organization they’re working with, as has been the case with Furniture Row Racing and Joe Gibbs this season? How much say does the bigger organization have?
Before this season, it looked as though RCR was holding the reins at Germain Racing, which was a year into a three-year deal with sponsor GEICO and driver Casey Mears. But Childress was looking for a seat for grandson Ty Dillon, and made the team an offer they couldn’t refuse for what now appears to be just a one-year deal as RCR will likely have a ride open for Dillon in 2018 after the departure of Paul Menard. It’s a move that likely ends Mears’ career as a Cup driver and creates upheaval at the No. 13 two years in a row, though the team probably got some better equipment in the deal, at least for this season.
The question then becomes whether RCR will also entice longtime Germain Racing sponsor GEICO to make the jump as well, a move that would cripple the single-car No. 13 operation. That’s not a partnership in any sense of the word.
This week, Joe Gibbs Racing, which trains and supplies the pit crews for the Nos. 77 and 78 at Furniture Row, suspended two crew members from the No. 78 after an altercation with members of the JGR No. 18 crew. After Truex and Kyle Busch tangled on track (which was truly just a racing incident), a couple of Truex crewmen greeted Busch crew chief Adam Stevens with mock applause as he passed their pit area. tevens then entered the pit and a brief altercation ensued. FOX Sports posted a video of the incident online afterward.
On Thursday, JGR announced that two crewmen from Truex’s team will be suspended for three races. While it is true that the crewman did provoke Stevens, was that provocation really enough to warrant a suspension? It seems a little extreme, even if the crews are quasi-teammates.
Considering that Truex has more wins than all four JGR drivers combined, the suspension looks to the casual observer like more of an attempt to put the satellite team in its place than one to create team harmony. It’s hard to imagine that if the roles had been reversed and Busch’s crew mocked No. 78 crew chief Cole Pearn that the result would have been the same.
Furniture Row Racing released a statement accepting the suspension because…well, what other option was there? The pit crew is employed by JGR and not Furniture Row.
— FalciAdaptiveMotorsports (@FalciAdaptive) July 27, 2017
While it’s become crucial for a smaller team to have some form of technical alliance with a larger one to become competitive, the situation is not without its drawbacks. When the parent team can dictate who drives for an organization (even if it was by making them a monetary or other offer they couldn’t refuse) or is in the position to hinder a team via a loophole in the alliance, it’s no longer an equitable agreement. Instead, it just looks like a bigger team taking advantage of a smaller one because they know they can.