One of the most compelling stories in NASCAR this season has been the unlikely rise of Furniture Row Racing. Based in Denver, far away from the NASCAR hub of Charlotte, Furniture Row is a single-car team with only 60 employees. But virtually each week in 2013, racing against organizations such as Hendrick Motorsports (which boasts 550 employees and four cars in its stable), the Furniture Car Chevy driven by Kurt Busch has ran with the leaders.
Busch qualified for the Chase, a first for Furniture Row in its seven years of full-time competition in the Cup series, and he has more top-five finishes this season in 33 starts (10) than the team had in its previous 199 starts (three). Next year Busch is moving to Stewart-Haas Racing and on Thursday FRR announced it signed Martin Truex Jr. to pilot the No. 78 Chevy. Now the question is: Will Truex be as successful next season with this underfunded, tiny team as Busch has been in 2013?
A eight-year veteran, Truex should have advanced to the Chase this fall for the third time in his career, but then NASCAR removed him from the playoff field after it was revealed that Truex's teammate at Michael Waltrip Racing, Clint Bowyer, had intentionally spun out in the regular season finale at Richmond to try to manipulate the outcome of the race. Then Truex's primary sponsor, NAPA, yanked its funding for 2014, which essentially ended Truex's tenure at MWR.
No question, Truex was the one who suffered the most from Spingate. Unable to find a ride with an elite multi-car team, Truex's last best option was to sign with Furniture Row. Truex isn't as talented as Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, but he should be a Chase contender next season. Furniture Row's technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing will be even tighter in 2014 and the team's pit stops, which have slow all season, can't be much worse.
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"It was unfortunate the way everything happened," Truex said. "We never saw it coming. It is one of those things that was definitely unprecedented in the sport we've never seen before. I hate that I had to be a part of it... I'm just very fortunate to have the opportunity to drive for a team of this caliber this late in the season... As unlucky as I got at Richmond a month or two ago I got just as lucky when this deal turned up."
With his future secure, expect Truex to be very, very fast on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, where he finished second in the spring. He's my pick to take the checkers.
Here are four other drivers to watch when the engines fire in the Lone Star State:
1. Matt Kenseth
Tied with Jimmie Johnson for the points lead with three races remaining, Kenseth should have the edge over the five-time champ on Sunday. This season Kenseth has flourished on 1.5-mile tracks such as Texas, where Kenseth has finished in the top-five in five of his last six starts.
"They always say, if you want to be the man, you have to beat the man and he's always definitely been the man," Kenseth says. "Really just trying to concentrate on that and trying to figure out how to make our car fast enough to go out and be able to compete with not only him, but the rest of the field each and every week."
2. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson's mission for Sunday is clear: Keep Kenseth within sight. Johnson will be favored to win next week at Phoenix, where he has four career victories, and so he simply wants to stay close to Kenseth on Sunday. Johnson did win this race last year, but for most of 2013 Kenseth has been better than the No. 48 team on 1.5-mile tracks.
"I don't think there's a weakness for either team right now," Johnson said. "We're probably going to finish by each other. If somebody has a mistake, I think that will be the deciding factor. But other than that, I think we're going to run right around each other for these next three races."
3. Jeff Gordon
After taking the checkered flag at Martinsville last week, Gordon moved from fifth to third in the standings. He won't win the title—he's 27 points behind, which translates to 27 positions on the track—but if he winds up third it would be his best season since 2009.
In his last eight starts at Texas, Gordon has only one top-five finish. "We've got to try to put pressure on [Matt and Jimmie] and put fast race cars out there to do that and then see what the results are after each race," Gordon said. "Even last week, we win the race and we really didn't really gain that much on those guys. They're very solid teams, solid drivers, and they run good everywhere. And I expect them to run good these three remaining races as well."
4. Carl Edwards
This has been a disappointing Chase for Edwards, who was regular season points champion. He's 10th in the standings and simply hasn't flashed elite speed over the last two months. But he should be a force on Sunday. He won the pole on Friday and Edwards has three career victories in the Lone Star State.
"When the Chase started, truly we sat and thought with the two wins and leading the points that we could go out and lead these last 10 races and win this thing," Edwards said. "It has not happened that way obviously. Some guys have really stepped it up."
Look for Kenseth and Johnson to step it up again on Sunday. But it says here the sport's two best drivers of 2013 won't be able to catch Truex, who will cap a most memorable weekend for him with his second victory of 2014.