A swig of beer, and then the can clanked to the concrete. There was still more of their dream to dismantle.
Two hundred feet away from Joey Logano’s championship celebration, in earshot of the massive stage with the massive trophy and the massive mob of adoring fans, Martin Truex Jr.’s team began their teardown. A year ago, Truex’s No. 78 year was basking in that same euphoria, celebrating their first NASCAR Cup Series title, the only one tiny Furniture Row Racing had ever won.
The only one, it turns out, that Furniture Row would ever win.
Sunday was Furniture Row’s final race. That’s it. Sponsorship issues forced owner Barney Visser to make the gut-wrenching decision he never wanted to make, to cease operations at the end of the 2018 season. Truex and his crew chief, Cole Pearn, would instead move to another team, Joe Gibbs Racing, and everyone else would scatter.
The reigning champs, who shocked the NASCAR world just a year earlier, were dissolving.
But they still had a final breath. One more shot at history. They could follow in the footsteps of so many sporting legends and to go out on top with a title. No one has won back-to-back championships since the vaunted Jimmie Johnson machine did so in 2009 and 2010, and now ... this team, this out-there group on its last legs, was going to do that?
“No question we had the car to beat,” Truex said, “but if you don’t lead the last lap, it doesn’t matter what you got.”
Now, Truex certainly had his moments during Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400. He led 20 laps, and was out front with less than 25 to go. He’d staved off Kyle Busch, he’d worked past Kevin Harvick. Heck, he even passed Logano and was extending his lead by the second.
But a late caution for Daniel Suarez hitting the wall sent everyone to pit road, and that was the race all at once. Truex and Logano battled for the lead after the restart, and while Truex briefly pulled ahead, Logano never relented. He was always close, nipping at Truex’s rear bumper, waiting for his moment to pass.
Then he came, made his move, and was gone.
It was similar, really, to what Truex had done to Kyle Busch a year earlier. So similar, in fact, that being on the other side of things Sunday made losing that much more painful.
“You know, kind of reversed the tale from last year,” Truex said. “It’s a tough night. You know, it’s a tough way to lose.
“That’s the way it goes.”
And so while Logano crossed the finish line and broke out in ecstasy, Truex bound to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. He did not have the mob, the cameras, the Hollywood moment with his girlfriend like he did this weekend last year.
He had ... nothing. Himself. He parked his car, pulled down the window netting, and sat. Head hung.
Meanwhile, stripping everything down to the bones had already begun. By the time Truex was out of his car and reluctantly engaging in postrace interviews, half his pit box was already disassembled and packed away. The roof, with ‘FURNITURE ROW’ plastered all across the side, had already started to peel. The similarly marked rugs were rolled up, dirty.
But no matter — that stuff would never be used again.
So the pit crew kept working, slowly but deliberately, practicing the same ritual they had for so many years and now would have no use for again. They swigged thin aluminum cans of beer as they worked — half celebratory at all they’d accomplished, half to cope with the end.
Eventually Logano’s impromptu party began fracturing, and fans drifted over to the pits. In Logano’s, they took what they could: lug nuts, tangled pieces of tape, spare ear plugs and other trash. That’s a real one! they exclaimed as they picked out souvenirs. Sign the wall, sign the wall!
Then they strolled, without care, past the remnants of the 78 stall. They saw the crew members, and some even wished them well. It was bleak. Quiet. Fitting, after all, for what it was.
“I’m just super proud of our effort,” Pearn said. “Everybody and their brother wanted to write us off and say we couldn’t do it, and we just proved them all the hell wrong, like we have all along.
“You know, if that’s the way the 78 has to go out, in a style and performance like that, I’m good with it.”
By now, they were wrapping up. More beer cans littered the pit wall than tools or equipment, or even people.
The last thing to take down was Truex’s fluorescent 78 sign. First they lowered it to the ground, let it droop and sag and hit the floor. Then they detached it from the pole for one final time, and finally laid in on its side by the wall.
“Where will it go?” one fan asked.
Truex’s last remaining crew member had no words. Visser was gone. Truex, Pearn, everyone else, too.
Then he too left, for one final night with the boys before the long flight back to Colorado. Maybe the shop will be turned into a museum, they’ve said, to commemorate what they accomplished there. Maybe it’ll be converted into a furniture warehouse, or something else.
Truex had long disappeared from view, retreated from the sadness and finality of it all, back to the well-deserved last celebration. But before he left, while he wasn’t long-winded or wordy, he gave a brief glimpse into what he was really feeling in this moment, the death of his championship team all around him.
“It sucks,” he said. “It hurts. It’s terrible. I hate it.
“I wish we could go on and race 10 more years together, but we can’t.”