Furniture Row Racing building a winner

Furniture Row Racing is working to build a single-car program in a multi-car world – and doing so outside of what is considered to be the NASCAR hub.

The team, based in Denver, is intent on gradually growing and gaining ground on the competition, hoping that continual improvement will help it close in on NASCAR’s elite. And it’s not entirely alone in that endeavor.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup team has a working alliance with Richard Childress Racing for engines and cars and is using a pit crew housed at Stewart-Haas Racing. It works out more complicated logistics than any other group in the garage, but with driver Regan Smith it is making gradual gains on the field.

They already enjoyed an early highlight as Smith finished seventh in the season-opening Daytona 500. While setbacks have prevented him from matching that success in the two races since, the driver and his team can look to that for inspiration.

Not that it’s unusual for Smith to fare well on a restrictor-plate track, even prior to his days with Furniture Row. It was his rush to the finish that led to a controversial yellow-line call by NASCAR officials when he appeared to win at Talladega Superspeedway in 2008. He crossed the finish line ahead of Stewart, then lost on a penalty when the sanctioning body determined he had completed the winning pass below the yellow line, a violation of the rules at restrictor-plate tracks.

These days, Smith and his group are working toward a goal of becoming regular contenders for top-10 finishes.

And they recognize it will take some time to get there –- as does everything with this little team bucking tradition. Smith joined the team for the 2009 season when they opted to scale back and run part-time building up for the future. Now, he’s watching the unique operation continue to build.

Barney Visser, team owner and co-founder of Furniture Row, decided to put his NASCAR shop near his business – in Colorado – when he founded the group as a part-time Cup and Nationwide effort in 2005. The team ran a limited Cup schedule until 2008, ran full-time for one year, scaled back in 2009 and has been racing full-time since.

But while the team principals admit that it takes a bit more planning and strategy to make things work from the area, they also seem pleased with how it has worked out for them.

General manager Joe Garone, a NASCAR veteran, said locating the team in Denver just made sense.

However, he admits that the organization had to carefully assess its plans to make sure it was the right call during that opening run.

“In the beginning we weren’t even sure you could race out of Colorado, as you can imagine,” he said. “The first couple of years were about just seeing if we were able to do it, logistically, and get it all done. We worked out all the bugs and got to where we thought we could make that happen and now we’re here.”

The key to it all, Garone says, is planning – and lots of trucking. All chassis have to be certified at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. If a car is wrecked badly, then it must be recertified. The pit crew operates out of North Carolina while the team is in Denver. Smith, though, spent the preseason driving the car in pit practice to work with the group and get to know them.

Everything requires an extra step in that planning process as transportation becomes an even larger factor for this team.

“We’ve got to be prepared that much better ahead of time,” Garone said. “Your engines, chassis, things that we still have to do, getting to and from the R&D center to get cars, that stuff is part of what we had to get worked out. At the end of the day it’s trucking is what it is. We’ve got maybe more vehicles and more transport drivers for a single-car team, for sure, than most.”

Helping that further is the alliance with the four-car Richard Childress Racing organization.

Mark McArdle, the group’s director of competition, compares it to other alliances in the garage. But he says the close working relationship among the people involved adds another layer of trust to the deal.

“I think it’s perhaps the easiest way to think about it for most of us is to say a lot of folks are familiar with the relationship between Stewart-Haas and Hendrick where race cars, engineering support, engines all come from that source and really you can think of our relationship with Richard Childress in the same way but, honestly, almost a higher level,” he said, adding. “ … They have been an absolutely outstanding partner to us.”

So, it seems, has Stewart-Haas Racing.

Pete Rondeau, who moved into the crew chief role during the 2010 season, said his team made a “strong point” that it didn’t want to have crew guys moving on and off that group as changes might be made at Stewart-Haas. They wanted a group that stayed together.

But the benefit is that Stewart-Haas has so many additional resources. Being located in the Charlotte area, it can draw from a more experienced base of pit crew talent in setting up the team.

He doesn’t worry about the relationships being hampered by the distance either. Rondeau makes regular visits to the Charlotte area to keep up with developments on this end and Smith did all that offseason pit practice with the team.

And they have all that time at the racetrack each week to work together and develop that relationship.

“The more you’re with a person you kind of learn each other a little bit better,” Rondeau said. “This year I’ll spend more time with Regan … It’s just one of them things that the more you’re with somebody, the more you know what they’re saying, what they’re feeling, what kind of day they’re going to have.”

Smith, meanwhile, has watched the team grow in recent years. The 27-year-old finished 28th in the standings last year and is in that spot again this season, but has been running better than that in races.

As he looks over the group, he doesn’t list any potential handicaps to overcome by virtue of being located outside the normal NASCAR realm. Instead, he honestly and frankly assesses its growth and potential.

And he looks forward to continuing to gain ground on the NASCAR competition -– no matter where each team is based.

“As a team of Furniture Row, we have made a lot of gains,” he said. “We are fortunate to have the RCR alliance in engineering and engines and to have that relationship. That certainly helped last year when we got that fully implemented. Pete taking over the crew chief position has helped me a lot. It has calmed me down in the car. It has gotten me to where I am thinking more about things on the track than worrying about (other things) and getting spun out.

“A year ago, if we had wrecked with four to go at Daytona, I would have imploded in the car. I would have lost my cool and it would have been game over, we wouldn’t have had a shot at even getting a top 10. Whereas this year, as soon as we got done spinning on the back straightaway, I was already (telling him) ‘This is what I think is torn up, this is what I definitely need the first time we pit to be able to not lose a lap’ and so on and so forth. They’ve changed my mentality.”

He rallied there for his seventh-place finish, perhaps a sign of that growth.

And it’s not just evident in himself, either. He sees it in all aspects of the team – and that’s what gives him faith in its potential to continue to grow this season.

“I think our whole program’s mentality has changed in the past year, year-and-a-half, two years,” Smith said. “We certainly have a lot of good people in there. We had good people to start with and we’ve added new people to help supplement that. It’s been a whole game change and thought change process for us.”