Heading into the 2017 NASCAR season, Furniture Row Racing prepared to do something it had never done before. The Denver, Colo.-based organization, led by Barney Visser, would field two cars in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Veteran Martin Truex Jr. returned to the No. 78 team for his fourth season with FRR. Truex was coming off a four-win season and a strong postseason run that came to a premature ending at Talladega Superspeedway. Rookie Erik Jones took the wheel of the new No. 77 Toyota.
Furniture Row faced another new challenge in the form of the redesigned Toyota Camry. However, it was Joe Gibbs Racing, not Furniture Row, that struggled to adapt to the new car. Despite being a JGR satellite team, Furniture Row never suffered from a lack of speed. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway in just the third race of the year, Truex chased down Brad Keselowski, passed the No. 2 car in the closing laps and claimed his first victory of the year. The win virtually guaranteed Truex a spot in NASCAR’s postseason, long before any of his manufacturer teammates reached Victory Lane.
Truex also adapted well to NASCAR’s new stage racing format. Not only was the No. 78 car fast, it was also usually fast throughout the whole race, allowing Truex to frequently win stages and pick up a playoff point for each stage win. In May, Truex earned his second win of the year at Kansas Speedway and then took the points lead following the Coca-Cola 600. By the halfway point of the regular season, NASCAR had awarded points in 27 stages, and Truex had won eight of them.
Expanding to two cars did not seem to hurt Furniture Row at all. Truex had not lost any of the speed he had shown on the intermediate tracks in years past, and his ever-growing mountain of playoff points made him one of the biggest championship threats.
Meanwhile, Jones embarked on his rookie season in the Cup Series. Although the No. 77 team showed speed at times during the spring, Jones’ top 10s were few and far between. More than anything else, Jones had a hard time closing out races. The No. 77 would make appearances among the front runners, only to fade back to midpack by the end of the race. Jones also had four DNFs due to crashes during the first half of the regular season.
By July, Jones was showing a lot of improvement. A pair of crashes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway put the No. 77 far behind the cutoff for the postseason. However, Jones still had an opportunity to secure a playoff spot by winning, and a Jones victory looked like a much more realistic possibility than it did earlier in the season.
At Michigan International Speedway in August, Truex and Jones lined up on the front row for a late restart. It looked like one of them would be going to Victory Lane, but on the restart, Kyle Larson jumped out from behind Truex, split the Furniture Row teammates and took the win for himself.
Jones might have missed an opportunity there, but he came back even stronger the following weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. The rookie drove his best race of the season, winning the pole and leading 260 laps. Unfortunately for Jones, he found himself in a duel for the win with Kyle Busch, and Busch’s veteran experience prevailed.
Jones’ late summer hot streak proved to be too little, too late. He closed out the regular season with a fifth place at Darlington Raceway and a sixth at Richmond Raceway. While Jones missed the playoffs, he left Richmond having accumulated more points during the year than five drivers who did qualify for the postseason.
Truex completed his own run to the playoffs still looking like one of the drivers to beat. He snagged two more wins, dominating at Kentucky Speedway and playing the fuel mileage game to perfection at Watkins Glen International.
However, Truex’s summer was not without a little controversy. A potential win slipped away from the No. 78 team at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Truex and Busch were in their own zip code for most of the race, but just after a restart on lap 111, Truex and Busch ran side by side into Turn 1, fighting for the lead. Truex suddenly got loose and slid into Busch, sending both cars crashing into the outside wall. The accident ended the race for both drivers, and it led to an altercation between Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens and several of Truex’s crew members.
The incident led to the suspension of two No. 78 crew members for three races each by Joe Gibbs Racing, since Truex’s crew members are JGR employees. This apparent dissention within the JGR ranks, and the fact that Stevens avoided punishment, suggested to some that the relationship between Gibbs and Furniture Row was fracturing. However, both teams downplayed the significance of the pit road confrontation.
Several weeks later at Richmond, Truex had another run-in with a pseudo-teammate, this time Denny Hamlin. One week earlier, Truex had blown a tire with a handful of laps to go at Darlington while racing Hamlin for the lead. The No. 78 bounced off the wall, but NASCAR refrained from throwing a caution, allowing Hamlin to race to victory. Truex found himself in a similar situation at Richmond, leading in the final laps and closing in on a win. But when Derrike Cope scraped the wall on lap 397, NASCAR threw the yellow flag.
The caution led to Truex losing the lead to Larson on pit road, then getting tangled up with Hamlin on the final lap. Hamlin appeared to hit Truex from behind and send him crashing into Turn 1. After the race, Hamlin took responsibility for the accident, but Truex was clearly agitated about not winning the race. His frustration made for a very awkward presentation when NASCAR honored him as the first official regular season champion.
Indeed, Truex was set up well for the playoffs. His race wins, stage wins and points for winning the regular season gave him 53 playoff points to carry with him as long as he stayed in the championship hunt. The only other drivers with more than 20 were Larson with 33 and Busch with 29. The championship fight was shaping up to be a battle between Truex, Busch and Larson.
Neither of the Furniture Row drivers experienced any drastic change in performance during the postseason. Jones wound up with three more top 10s and two more crash-related DNFs, one of which came from a frightening wreck at Kansas Speedway. Truex kept on winning, first at Chicagoland Speedway in the Round of 16 and then at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas in the Round of 12. The No. 78 team did not have to advance on points until going into the championship round, which Truex guaranteed after two strong performances in the Round of 8.
As the season wound down, Furniture Row faced its share of off-track heartbreak and challenges. Fabricator Jim Watson passed away days before Truex’s Kansas win, leaving the team with heavy hearts. Two weeks later, Visser was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack. His subsequent surgery and recovery prevented him from travelling with the team to Homestead-Miami Speedway to watch Truex race for the championship.
Yet if Furniture Row was disheartened by the absences of Watson and Visser at Homestead, it never showed.
Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn and the No. 78 team came into the final race as the championship favorites, and they did not disappoint. After lagging behind the other contenders earlier in the race, Truex’s car came to life after the sun went down. A caution on lap 229 allowed Truex to pit under caution for the last time, and he restarted the race leading with 51 laps to go. The No. 18 closed in on the No. 78 during last green flag run, but Truex held Busch at bay for the rest of the event. Truex earned his eighth victory of 2017 and his first championship in NASCAR’s top division.
Furniture Row’s story has been one of steady improvement as an organization, particularly since the team’s first win in 2011. The 2015 and 2016 seasons lifted Truex and FRR to heights that neither had reached on their own. Yet 2017 was even better. Furniture Row enjoyed eight wins (all by Truex), 24 top fives (19 by Truex and five by Jones) and 40 top 10s (26 by Truex and 14 by Jones). In fact, Truex put together one of the most impressive postseason runs in history. Over 10 races, Truex won four times and earned nine top fives, including five consecutive races to close out the season with finishes of third or better.
Truex’s number of wins, top fives and top 10s smashed his single-season personal best records. Although he won more poles in 2016, Truex’s average start was better in 2017 (9.1 to 6.8), as was his average finish (13.9 to 9.4) He also led 2,253 laps during the season and turned in strong performances at intermediate tracks, short tracks, high-banked ovals, short flat tracks and big speedways. The only place where Truex struggled was on superspeedways, where he crashed out in three of the four races.
For 2018, Jones will move over to Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 car. Lacking the right driver and sponsor combination to keep the No. 77 on track, Visser elected to shut the team down and return FRR to a one-car organization. Truex will not have a teammate next year, but Furniture Row will not be splitting its resources either. As long as the No. 78 team can maintain its speed on the intermediate tracks, Truex should be in a great position to defend his championship.