Who's left to run for Furniture Row?
As NASCAR's silly season draws near a close, the team that started off most of the intrigue is the one still without a dance partner for 2014. Furniture Row Racing, which made NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time ever this season, has yet to sign a driver for next season. With current driver Kurt Busch off to Stewart-Haas Racing next season, the team will almost certainly take a step back in talent no matter who comes aboard. And despite the level of success they've experienced this year, several drivers have turned elsewhere instead of coming aboard. With the major players eliminated, it's time to look at the remaining options and see who might fit with Furniture Row.
So who's left? The choice still comes down to experience versus potential. There are several veteran drivers who likely still have much to give in the right circumstance. They may not take the team to a championship (or even the Chase) in the years ahead but they'll be able to make races and bring the car home in one piece. In one case, they also carry a past champion's provisional- which is never a bad thing to have in your back pocket. On the other side is potential. NASCAR's lower ranks have a number of drivers itching to get their chance at the Cup level. They're likely to come with a higher toll in wrecked race cars as they learn. At the same time, they have the talent to compete and could very well carry Furniture Row to its first Sprint Cup title.
Jeff Burton. After struggling the past two seasons, Burton is out at Richard Childress Racing in favor of Ryan Newman next year. Yet “the Mayor” is still relatively competitive and remains popular with the fans. He's also been running at the finish in all but seven races since the end of 2010. He has a steady hand behind the wheel and the respect of his peers in the garage. He's also familiar with the team dynamic and equipment. Furniture Row recently announced they would continue their partnership with RCR next season- the very same RCR that Burton has run for since 2004. Finally, he's a known quantity to the people. Furniture Row and RCR tightened their technical alliance in 2013, with drivers from both teams participating in the weekly drivers meeting. All involved would know exactly what they're getting in bringing Burton aboard for next season.
Mark Martin. A known physical fitness fanatic, Martin's NASCAR career may well extend into his sixties. After a stint with Michael Waltrip Racing, he re-joined the Chevy camp back in August to replace Tony Stewart behind the wheel of the #14. But come next season, Stewart will be back and Martin seems likely to want another part time driving arrangement elsewhere- an arrangement Furniture Row might be inclined to consider. Bringing Martin aboard would enable the team to partner him with an up-and-coming driver. It's an arrangement Martin is familiar with, having served as part driver, part mentor for a number of others since his days splitting time with Aric Almirola at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. He could also help bridge the gap between the present and the future. None of the veteran free agents will compete for a title next year and none of the rookies seem ready to do so. But pair them with Martin and they may well gain the experience they'll need to do it in the future.
Bobby Labonte. Labonte is the aforementioned past champion. He's had a disappointing run with JTG-Daugherty Racing the past few years and is being replaced there by A.J. Allmendinger next season. Yet Labonte is the epitome of the veteran skill set. He finished 34 of 36 races last season and has only two wrecks this season. To date, Furniture Row has shown zero interest in Labonte and he may well be on his way out of NASCAR next season.
Ryan Blaney. Coming off his first Nationwide win in Kentucky, Blaney's stock has never been higher. While it helps to drive the fastest car in the field (something Penske's #22 clearly is this season), Blaney did his part behind the wheel. He also has a pair of Truck series wins and eight top five finishes in only 25 races at that level. Surprisingly, the 19 year old driver does not yet have a firm plan in place for 2014. He's yet to run a race at the Sprint Cup level and may benefit from another year in the Nationwide series. But he's got both the bloodlines and the talent to be a success in Cup and he's going to get a shot sooner rather than later. Why not 2014 for Furniture Row?
Ty Dillon. The same could be said for Dillon in both respects. With brother Austin Dillon moving up to the #3 Cup car next season, Ty will take Austin's place in the Nationwide series in 2014. Most observers believe that both Dillon brothers will eventually drive at the Cup level for their grandfather Richard Childress. Ty may well leapfrog Nationwide entirely and climb aboard the #78 at RCR's satellite team next year instead. Like Burton, Dillon is a familiar face to the team given his time in RCR's developmental program. He's also won a pair of truck races and has had 14 top five finishes in 41 races. The only drawback to Dillon is that he'll likely leave for RCR in two to three years and the team will pay the price in wrecked cars for his learning curve.
Brian Scott. Unlike the other two potential rookies, Scott is a relative veteran at age 25. He will make his Sprint Cup debut later this season in an RCR-prepared car at Charlotte. So he should bring a greater level of maturity (and fewer wrecked cars) than either Blaney or Dillon. As an RCR developmental driver, he's also someone who would be able to fit in seamlessly with the RCR-Furniture Row alliance. He's never finished in the top five of either the Nationwide or Truck season standings but he's in the midst of the best season of his career right now. He's scored 12 top ten finishes, a pole start, and has led 254 laps over the course of the season. He's also finished 26 of the 27 races, a sign that he may have finally left the hyper-aggressiveness of his youth behind.
One driver who doesn't fit comfortably into either category is Martin Truex Jr. At 33 years of age, Truex is no longer a wide-eyed rookie. But neither is he a grizzled veteran. After the chaos that his season became at Richmond three weeks ago, Truex is viewed by many as damaged goods. His sponsor, NAPA, already announced their decision to pull the plug on Truex at the end of the season- despite the fact that Truex was not directly involved in the shenanigans NASCAR penalized MWR for. It's as if the auto parts giant already had buyer's remorse about the long term contract they'd signed earlier with the team and was grateful for an opportunity to break the deal. None of that speaks well for Truex.
Yet Martin's on-track results are solid. No, he's not an elite driver by any means. But he won earlier this year at Sonoma and has steadily improved his final points position each year since 2009 (a streak that will end this season by missing the Chase). He's also learned how to make bad days simply mediocre, mediocre days average, and average days good- something illustrated by his increasing number of top five and top ten finishes every year. Finally, after having driven for DEI at its end and MWR near its inception, Truex learned how to drive a car that might be a step behind what the competition has. For a single car team (no matter how closely aligned with RCR), that's a quality that cannot be overlooked.
Furniture Row's wait may also be the result of another MWR driver. Clint Bowyer's current sponsor, Five Hour Energy, has been strangely silent on its plans for 2014. After upping their commitment the past two years and spending more money behind activating their sponsorship with Clint Bowyer, the energy drink maker has simply said they will evaluate their options at the end of the year. Maybe that's because they're waiting for the furor over Richmond to die down. Or maybe it's because they're genuinely non-plussed at what to do given the money they've spent already. Their comments about Brian France unilaterally adding Jeff Gordon to the Chase also hint at a company questioning their entire strategy vis-a-vis NASCAR. If they pull their sponsorship for next season, it's likely that MWR as a team will cease to exist. No team can seriously consider trying to put two unsponsored cars on the track and that's the exact dilemma MWR would face.
Bowyer is both a talented driver and a marketable personality. If available, he would be the ideal choice for Furniture Row both on and off the track. As the drivers left on the table aren't going anywhere, they have the ability to wait and see what happens with Bowyer and MWR. Given Bowyer's time at RCR, he's already familiar with most of the personnel and the team's way of doing business. Childress lost Bowyer before and now may well have an opportunity to bring him back into the fold with the demise of MWR. Having missed the opportunity to move elsewhere during the traditional silly season, Bowyer would realistically have little choice other than to sign with Furniture Row.
So we may still be months away from a decision on Furniture Row's part. They have little to gain by moving now while waiting may reward them with one of the better drivers in the garage. Failing that, there are still a number of options available to the team and all of those options will still be there come December. The only thing for certain is that whomever climbs behind the wheel will have a difficult goal in trying to match what Busch has already accomplished with the team this year in making NASCAR's playoffs.