RICHMOND — Mark McArdle was fired as competition director for
Motorsports in 2009, a week after
won at Atlanta and the very day Kahne qualified the team for the Chase.
lost his ride during the downsizing of Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of the 2008 season. His pink slip came just weeks after
nullified his first-place finish at Talladega, ruling that he drove below the yellow line to pass
, who deftly forced Smith below it.
Both have landed on their feet with Furniture Row Racing. Smith is the driver and McArdle the competition director for a team whose Denver base makes it the only one in the Sprint Cup Series not located in the
, N.C., area.
It's little wonder McArdle says the team has likened itself to
's Oakland Raiders of the 1970s for much of its existence.
"We were the castoffs nobody wanted," McArdle said. "We had the chip on our shoulders and were going to come back, win and show you."
And, in one of the best "David beats Goliath" stories of the 2011 season, they did so when Smith ran to victory at famed Darlington Raceway. Furniture Row bucked the odds despite being a geographically isolated one-car team, fielding a driver with no victories in one of NASCAR's three top series.
They'll begin the Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in search of a second victory. Should they get it, their attitude will be different than it was going into Darlington last May.
"After the win, we accepted who we are and no longer had to have that false swagger," McArdle said. "We were able to say, 'Look, we're legitimized and don't have to have any persona. We are who we are.'
"In essence, that made the racing industry take the last step in viewing us seriously from where we started: as almost a start-and-park team, although never in the team's history was there a start-and-park."
Barney Visser founded the team in 2005, basing it in Denver, where Furniture Row, the chain he co-owns, is headquartered. The team's mostly part-time Cup operation was undistinguished through the first five seasons.
Furniture Row featured a series of drivers,
among them, but managed no top-10s in 90 races in its first five seasons. Simply getting parts to the shop in Denver was a challenge.
"Early on, we had a lot of hurdles to make it where we can do it now," general manager Joe Garone said. "Almost all of those challenges were logistics. One of the key issues was getting engines to and from North Carolina.
"We were able to overcome that because we realized we had a tractor-trailer going to and from North Carolina picking up materials for some of our owner's factories. We were able to use that tractor-trailer to ship engines, transmissions and parts to and from North Carolina on a weekly basis."
Unlike many one-car teams, money was not an issue.
"Barney Visser gives us the tools we need and funds us the way we need to be funded," Garone said. "He looks to get people who can do the job, then he gets them."
The economic downturn that resulted in about 1,000 layoffs in Charlotte-area race shops in 2008-09 proved to be a personnel godsend for Furniture Row. Garone upgraded by recruiting Smith, McArdle, crew chief Pete Rondeau and a host of shop talent.
"We were able to capitalize on the bad economy by getting more experienced people other teams were letting go," Garone said. "So we have a real strong workforce."
And a close one, too. Smith said that because there are no other Cup teams in the Denver area, it almost automatically makes shop workers closer. That bond, he said, fosters a strong pride and work ethic in the shop.
Smith, a Carolinian much of his life, loves Colorado. He feels the lack of other NASCAR activity in the Mile High City makes it easier to focus on racing and to forget about it.
"This sport can be overwhelming and grab you, forcing you into a situation where it's almost the only thing you think about," he said. "On the one hand, being out here has given me a chance to refocus on racing because there are no distractions.
"But where I live is isolated and pretty relaxing, so you can shut off racing and find a sort of sanity."
In McArdle and Rondeau, Smith has two mentors to keep him grounded. Rondeau is the calming force on the radio during races for Smith, who admittedly can overreact when things go wrong.
McArdle has provided engineering and driving coaches for Smith, who has been eager to learn. He followed his strong Darlington showing by finishing third at the Brickyard in Indianapolis.
While Furniture Row doesn't have a top-10 yet this season, it is a solid 20th in the standings: a big jump from the early days, when the team could not stay inside the top 35. More important, everyone seems to be enjoying life in Denver and optimism is high.
"People always look at Hendrick (Motorsports), but I'm not sure it's a perfect thing to be with a super team," Smith said. "There's something to be said about building a program.