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In NASCAR's top series, Furniture Row Racing has been the small fish in a big pond. The one-car team, owned by Barney Visser and sponsored by the retail chain Furniture Row, has been competing against multi-car powerhouses like Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway since its inception in 2005. As if that didn’t seem daunting enough, Furniture Row is based in Denver, Colo., an oddity among race teams as most operate in or near Charlotte, NC, the heart of NASCAR. According to the team’s website, “Some said we were crazy to be based ‘out west,’ but we built our business and our team with the same pioneering spirit that helped tame the Rocky Mountains.”
It’s this spirit that kept the team going despite cutting back to part-time status as recently as 2009, due to financial constraints. The No. 78 had featured a variety of drivers, including Kenny Wallace and Joe Nemechek. But in 2009 came Regan Smith. The 2008 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year piloted the ride for 18 races.
Had things been different, Smith would have already been known as a Sprint Cup race winner by this point in time. At the fall Talladega race in 2008, Smith crossed the finish line first, beating Tony Stewart for the win. But NASCAR rescinded the victory because Smith had advanced his position by going below the yellow line. Stewart was credited with the win and Smith was left with the heartache of having won his first Cup race, then not having won at all.
When Furniture Row Racing was able to run full-time again in 2010, the team signed Smith for the 2010 season. The team also formed a chassis alliance with one of NASCAR’s top teams, Richard Childress Racing. The year offered a fresh start for both Furniture Row and Smith.
That year Smith’s best finishes were a pair of 12th-places in the fall races at Fontana and Talladega; he finished 28th in the points standings. It wasn’t where he and the team wanted to be, Smith even worried about being fired. But in the last three races of 2010, Smith had qualified in the top-10, his best starting spots all year. This would be a precursor of things to come.
For the 2011 season, Furniture Row further boosted its race program by forming alliances with Earnhardt-Childress Racing for its engines and Stewart-Haas Racing, who provides the pit crew for the No. 78. By the time the season got under way, it became obvious that Smith and Furniture Row had found something. In the first 10 races of the season, Smith qualified in the top-10 seven times. He nearly scored his first pole at Richmond before having to settle for the outside pole position.
In the season opener at Daytona, Smith claimed his first top-10 finish in Cup with a seventh-place effort. Unfortunately after Daytona, Smith experienced several good runs only to have bad luck or mechanical engine failures spoil his day. Outside of Daytona, his best finishes were 15th at Talladega and 17th at Richmond - the last two races leading up to Darlington.
The weekend didn't start out very promising at the "Track Too Tough to Tame," however. Qualifying was the No. 78's strong suit, but Smith’s starting position of 23rd was his worst of the season. Once the green flag drops, though, it’s not where you start – it’s where you finish. After so many good runs had been quashed, Smith was looking to seal the deal at Darlington. With 11 laps left, crew chief Pete Rondeau's call to stay out on old tires put Smith in front of the field. On the last restart, Smith was racing series points leader Carl Edwards and got loose - hitting Darlington's famous wall. It was a mistake that could have killed Smith's momentum. Instead Smith saved it, picked up steam and stayed ahead of Edwards. When the checkered flag flew, this time there was no doubt who had won.
Smith had claimed his first Cup win, following Trevor Bayne as the second driver to do so this season. And the demons that had haunted him since that near-victory at Talladega were finally put to rest.
"I'll be honest with you, I didn't know if I was ever going to get it back. To get it back at Darlington, absolutely it's vindication. Winning here to me means more to me than that win could have ever meant," Smith said after the race.
Even Edwards was excited for Cup's newest winner, calling Smith a "heck of a guy."
For Furniture Row Racing, the little team that could, did. The first win for the only race team west of the Misissippi "means everything," said team General Manager Joe Garone.
"We've been six years building this team and literally started from scratch. I can tell you a lot of people, and I can't say I wasn't with them when Barney Visser wanted it run out of Colorado, that we might just be crazy. It's been a long road," Garone said.
Smith added, "Everybody said for how long, you can't race outside of Charlotte, the 20-mile radius where all the teams are, you can't do it. We've been doing it every week."
The win not only means that Smith will compete in the upcoming All Star Race, but it could be pivotal in terms of making the Chase. Smith, currently 27th in the standings, is eligible for one of two wildcard positions in NASCAR's 10-race playoffs for drivers who have the most wins sitting in the 11th to 20th positions in points.
After making their mark in Sprint Cup, the goal for Smith and the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team remains in focus: "We need to take chances like we did tonight and try to sneak some wins out," Smith said. "Our main focus (before Darlington) was, let's try and sneak as many wins as we can and get back in the 20 points."
NASCAR’S CLOUT RISES
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After his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie Johnson was named the most influential athlete of the year. Johnson beat out the likes of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (No. 2), basketball great Shaquille O’Neal (No. 4) and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning (No. 7). The list was based on a poll of more than 1,000 adults conducted by E-Poll Market Research and Nielsen Media Research.
The article cited Johnson’s guy-next-door appeal paired with his incredible success in NASCAR among the reasons for his high standing. The article also noted that “Johnson has seen a spike in popularity as other athletes flatten out or decline amid labor strife.”
Joining Johnson on the list are his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 3) and four-time champion Jeff Gordon (No. 8). Gordon’s win at Phoenix earlier this season is credited as part of a NASCAR resurgence that has helped make the public more aware of the sport’s drivers.
To see the full list of Most Influential Athletes, click here.
In recent weeks a violent torrent of tornadoes and floods has left a path of devastation throughout the South. The twisters killed more than 300 people across five states, with 249 deaths alone in Alabama and 41 of those after a massive tornado struck Tuscaloosa. NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Eric McClure was affected when a tornado severely damaged his home in Abingdon, Va. Fortunately McClure and his family were uninjured in the disaster.
While some of these stories are on the backburner as other news stories take their place, the victims of these disasters still need our help as they try to put their lives back together.
Here are some ways you can help:
- American Red Cross: Text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation or visit the organization's online donation page.
- Salvation Army: Text GIVE to 80888 to make a $10 donation to the organization’s disaster relief services or call 1-800-SAL-ARMY. To donate online, visit the organization’s website at http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/; designate your donation for “April 2011 Tornado Outbreak” or “May Floods.”
- NASCAR Unites: The recently launched initiative aims to unite the NASCAR community to help aid victims of the tornadoes and floods through its disaster relief fund. To make a donation, visit NASCAR Unites' online donation page or write to NASCAR Unites Disaster Relief Fund, c/o The NASCAR Foundation, 550 S. Caldwell St., Suite 2000, Charlotte, NC 28202.