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Furniture Row Racing team is a NASCAR solo act

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The season-opening Daytona 500 was less than an hour old when Barney Visser saw his latest $1-million NASCAR investment literally go up in smoke.

Visser owns Furniture Row Racing, which fields one car — the black No. 78 Chevrolet — driven by Martin Truex Jr. in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.

After weeks of preparation for the Daytona 500 and then being forced to use a backup car because of a crash in qualifying, the team saw the engine on Truex's car blow up only 31 laps into NASCAR's crown-jewel event last month.

"When you're the first car out [of the race], it knocks the wind out of your sails a little bit, especially when you spend like $1 million or $1 million-plus out of your pocket to get there," said Todd Berrier, the team's crew chief.

But that's the cost of being a player in big league stock car racing. And as the series holds its fifth race of the season Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Visser is happy to keep signing the checks.

The team gets its name from the chain of Furniture Row centers that Visser owns, including 330 furnishing and bedding stores in 31 states.

The chain was built by the 64-year-old Visser, a Vietnam veteran, college dropout and father of seven whose net worth is thought to be at least a few hundred million dollars, and who first fell in love with motor racing 20 years ago.

Visser is a reserved, laconic owner, but the aim behind his NASCAR effort is clear: Besides satisfying his love of racing, FRR is a major advertising channel for Visser's stores.

"It's a marketing effort for us," Visser said.

It's also now the best one-car team in the Cup series, for which the most successful teams such as Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing have three or four cars in their stables.

FRR last year earned a berth in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup title playoff with former champion Kurt Busch at the wheel. It was the first one-car team to do so, and Busch ultimately finished 10th in the standings.

"They're doing a really good job," said Chip Ganassi, a longtime racing owner with a two-car Cup team. "Being a one-car team and what they've accomplished is nothing short of incredible."

But Busch then left to become the fourth driver at the Stewart-Haas Racing team, after Visser said he wouldn't get into a bidding war to keep Busch's services.

So Visser signed Truex, 33, who has two wins in his eight full years in the Cup series. Now the question is whether Truex and the team can do as well this year as Busch did.

Despite making last year's Chase, FRR has only one win in its Cup series history: at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in 2011, when its driver was Regan Smith.

Even so, "We expect [Truex] to make the Chase and expect him to win races," team General Manager Joe Garone said. "We fully expect to do better [than last year]."

But FRR is off to a lousy start. After the engine failure in Daytona, Truex finished 22nd in Phoenix, 14th in Las Vegas and 36th a week ago in Bristol, Tenn., where his car suffered mechanical woes and brushed the wall after contact with another car.

Truex qualified 12th for Sunday's Fontana race. But in practice Saturday, a blown tire again sent his Chevy into the wall and forced the team to pull out another backup car. Under NASCAR rules, that means Truex must start at the rear of the 43-car field Sunday.

"This is definitely not what we needed," Truex said.

The team is unique for several reasons. Nearly all NASCAR teams are headquartered in the Charlotte, N.C., area, but FRR's 35,000-square-foot race shop and its 64 employees are in Denver, where Visser's furniture business is based.

Though top-flight NASCAR teams spend roughly $20 million a year to field one car, and less prosperous teams such as Front Row Motorsports spend about $7 million per car, FRR is "somewhere in between," Visser said. "I don't really want to get into the numbers."

One-car teams such as Visser's are inherently at a disadvantage compared with multi-car teams, whose drivers and crews can share data, technology and race-day information, including strategy and track conditions. Multi-car teams also enjoy economies of scale, with operating and research costs spread across three or four cars.

Visser's team bridges part of that gap by having a technical alliance — which involves sharing engineering and research — with three-car Richard Childress Racing, whose ECR Engines arm also leases engines to FRR.

On its own, FRR follows Visser's edict that cash spent on NASCAR must be aimed at finding more speed and little else. "All he cares about is what makes the car go fast," Truex said.

He also saves money by using Furniture Row's delivery trucks to haul engines and other NASCAR parts along with the furniture fabric they carry from North Carolina to Denver.

Yet Visser does not hesitate to spend if he's persuaded that doing so will buy more speed. "I absolutely do not want for anything," said Berrier, who spent most of his 12-year Cup career at Childress before joining FRR in mid-2012.

And though most Cup cars are festooned with different sponsors' logos, FRR's car usually has only two major ones: Furniture Row and one of its subsidiary chains, Denver Mattress. That's because, until recently, Visser wanted the car to promote only his company.

But the team now is actively seeking additional corporate backers, mainly to finance a second car.

"We're not well marketed out there in terms of selling sponsorship, and we need to change that," Visser said. After the team's success last year, "We've got a little more to sell today than we did," he said.

Visser got hooked on speed when he attended a driving school for high-performance cars in 1994. Several years later, he bought a minor league race car he spotted in a newspaper advertisement.

He then established a team that, starting with one race in 2005, entered NASCAR's top-tier Cup series.

Now, the cost of competing in the 36-race Cup season has prompted Visser to curb expansion plans for his retail chain.

"I can have the race team or another Furniture Row center every year," he said. "I would rather have the race team right now than one more center."

Why? "I get to do something I enjoy doing," Visser said. "I guess you can spend your money on a lot of different things but I enjoy this, I enjoy the guys, I enjoy the engineering aspects of it."

Visser also has confidence in Truex, a New Jersey native Visser describes as "pretty cool-headed" and a "history that would say he's going to be good."

But Visser cautioned that this early in the season, "nobody knows exactly what we've got. We're going to find out here. That makes it fun."

james.peltz@latimes.com

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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