By Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Coming off the finest season of his career, Martin Truex Jr. suddenly finds himself behind the wheel for a new manufacturer.
After several years of thoughtful deliberation, Furniture Row Racing left Chevrolet and its affiliation with Richard Childress Racing in favor of Toyota and a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing.
During “Toyota Tuesday” at the 34th annual Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour presented by Technocom, Furniture Row president and general manager Joe Garone explained the move.
“If we were going to be happy running in the middle of the field, we would have been happy with where we were at,” Garone said. “But Chevrolet has their hands full. They have plenty of teams and, as a new one coming in, we were always going to be the bottom team. They can only spread themselves so thin. So, honestly, there wasn’t the opportunity for us to get to the upper tier.
“Toyota looked at it completely differently. They could see the benefits we bring to the table as a single-car team partnered with one of their teams, and they jumped right on board.”
Garone then drew an analogy more befitting a jeweler than a racing team’s manager.
“It’s about the car you take to the track and it being better than the next guy’s,” he said. “We take the rock and polish it. We’re really good at polishing the rock, but we don’t build the rock. We put all our energy into that one car and don’t have to spread ourselves over many cars. So, sometimes, we can move more quickly than other teams.”
Truex moved quickly in the black No. 78 throughout last season, posting career bests with eight top fives, 22 top 10 finishes (including 14 of the first 15 races) and a final four appearance in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The two-time NASCAR XFINITY Series champion expressed mixed feelings about leaving Chevrolet and the relationship with RCR.
“We owe a lot to RCR, certainly,” he said. “They were a big part of what we did. We had a great relationship with those guys. … (But) it was frustrating at times when we couldn’t look to them for help.
“Hopefully this (relationship) will be even better. Gibbs cars were really fast last year and they obviously won the championship, too. So, having those guys to lean on and learn from, I think it’s big – another step toward winning us and Barney (team owner Visser) a championship.”
To a man, the Furniture Row contingent noted how impressed they’ve been with the early hands-on support from Toyota Racing Development and from JGR.
“We had support from Chevrolet, but nowhere near the level of what we’re receiving from Toyota,” second-year crew chief Cole Pearn said. “We’re going to be in lockstep with JGR as much as we can, combining all our wind tunnel hours and resources into one front.
“Last year feels like a lifetime ago as we’re transitioning to this new world. As busy as it’s been, it’s been equally exciting. I can’t think of one area of our team that’s not improving. Some days you get the panic attacks setting in – like how are we going to pull this all together? At the same time, you look back at where we are and where we’re going and you can’t help but feel excited.”
The shift to Toyota wasn’t the only change Furniture Row was crowing about on Tuesday. The Denver-based race team announced that Bass Pro Shops would sponsor the No. 78 Toyota in nine races this season.
“Very excited,” said Truex, who had Bass Pro Shops on his hood for his XFINITY Series championships in 2004 and 2005. “In addition to my passion for fishing and hunting and the outdoors, Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris is a personal friend and hunting buddy. I’m really proud to have his name on the car.”
Truex says he feels more confidence this season, in part because it’s his second season with Pearn.
“We have a lot of expectations to live up to, for sure,” Truex said. “I feel like we can pick up where we left off, even though there’s going to be a lot of change coming to our team, equipment-wise and car-wise. … The real key to our team is the personnel. It’s the people, the relationships, the confidence we have in one another and none of that has changed. I think we can totally look back on last year for that confidence in each other and apply that to our new parts and pieces as we go racing.”
One thing Truex and Pearn agree they wish they could have done better in 2015 was to run better at Homestead.
“The way we ran that whole weekend wasn’t a good indication of what we’re capable of,” Truex said. “We struggled all weekend. We couldn’t find speed. We just missed it. We know how hard it is to get to that final four, but we’re going to give it our all to get back there and turn the tables.”
Image: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images