News & Media


Furniture Row team hopes to sustain surge

August 17, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Regan Smith's new match with Todd Berrier has turned the tides for the No. 78 Chevrolet, improving finishes at recent tracks. (Getty)

Regan Smith and new crew chief Todd Berrier clicking in the No. 78

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- From the first lap of his first practice session with his new crew chief, Regan Smith could feel the difference. One circuit around Indianapolis Motor Speedway was all it took to convince the driver that his No. 78 Chevrolet had been vastly improved.

"It was a case where, from the first lap on the race track, I felt the difference in the race cars and how they drove," Smith said. "And I knew from that first lap on the track that we were in a better situation. By the end of the weekend, it felt like we'd all been working together for a long time. There was no transition, really."

"I can tell you, I'm not doing anything different inside the race car. I'm driving the race car the same way I have all year. Just a lot of new ideas, a lot of changes came in with Todd ..."

--REGAN SMITH

The result that weekend may not have shown it -- Smith finished 18th at the Brickyard after his car suffered damage on a restart -- but Indianapolis was the beginning of a resurgence for the Denver-based Furniture Row Racing organization, which, to the midpoint of this season, had struggled to build on last year's breakthrough victory in the Southern 500. With veteran crew chief Todd Berrier now calling the shots and a new race engineer on board, the No. 78 team has rolled out a string of strong cars that have it hoping to appear in the top 10 with much more regularity.

Forget for the moment that 23rd-place standing in the Sprint Cup points. At Indy, the first race after Berrier replaced former crew chief Pete Rondeau, Smith's car was good enough to run among the leaders until it got beat up and knocked back on a restart. The last two races, at Pocono and Watkins Glen, have brought identical ninth-place finishes -- the first back-to-back top-10s of Smith's six-year Cup career. As far as the folks at Furniture Row are concerned, the last three weeks aren't a fluke, but the organization's new reality.

"I don't only think it's sustainable, I think it's just the tip of the iceberg of what we're capable of," Smith said Friday at Michigan International Speedway, where the circuit competes Sunday. "These guys haven't had a chance to build cars from the ground up yet like they want. We'll have some of those cars rolling out in the near future. Along with that, there's a lot of things we haven't done yet that we want to do, and we're working toward. I think it's sustainable, and I think our expectations are more than what we've already accomplished."

Heady words indeed for a team that for the last two years has struggled to establish itself inside the top 20, and opened this season with relatively modest hopes of running consistently in the top 15. But the presence of Berrier, an eight-time race winner as a crew chief and a long-time fixture at Furniture Row ally Richard Childress Racing, has changed things. Tweaks made to the front end of the No. 78 car have eliminated some handling issues the team has battled all season, and Smith's comfort level behind the wheel has increased -- all of which is indicative in dramatically improved results.

"What's happening is, the way the cars are driving right now ... is the way Regan needs the cars to be," said team general manager Joe Garone. "The cars have matched up to where Regan needs them to be. Because of that, I think we can do really well. You can see it. You compare it in his conversations about what he's feeling in the race cars, it's just matching up to the way he drives. So that makes me think we're going to continue having good runs."

Smith agreed. "In the car, my comfort is better than it's ever been," he said. "... I feel like I'm working half as hard to go twice as fast, I guess is the best way I can put it. That's just the fact of the matter. The things I've been fighting all year, I'm not fighting anymore. Things that we've been trying to find answers to, we've found answers to. It's just been a lot of real positive changes."

In addition to its new crew chief, the team also brought in a new race engineer in Cole Pearn, who had been with the organization for part of last season. Although Berrier had most recently served as crew chief at JTG Daugherty Racing, for 18 years he had worked at RCR, from whom Furniture Row receives chassis, technical assistance and engines through the Earnhardt-Childress collaboration. Although it's a new team, Berrier said his tenure at the Childress shop makes him familiar with everything the No. 78 program is using, which helped accelerate the transition.

"I've had a lot to do with every part and piece that's there," Berrier said. "So, with that being said, it's easy to be familiar with the stuff and easy to be familiar with the procedures, and it's not like you're trying to figure anything out. You go somewhere when you've been somewhere else, and typically you have to re-learn all the front-end geometry, re-learn all the parts and pieces. Here, it's all stuff I've worked with my whole life. That made it easy to come in there and be confident in knowing what you want to do."

Garone said Berrier's history with RCR factored into the decision to bring the new crew chief on board. The relationship between the two organizations will likely continue now that Furniture Row is aiming to stay with Chevrolet into next season. The team had been in talks with Dodge, which announced two weeks ago it was withdrawing from NASCAR competition after this year. "Since they've pulled out, we're going to try and not only just secure what we're doing," Garone said, "but make it even better with Chevrolet and Richard Childress."

Berrier, who is relocating to Denver with his family next month, doesn't want to discount the job done by Rondeau, who is now heading up Furniture Row's new research and development department. "It's the same parts and pieces, it's just maybe how they're molded on and how you're going after using them," he said. "Those guys have done a good job up to this point. It ain't like we built all new race cars in three weeks. We're racing with the cars they had."

And, to this point, producing result. Berrier believes Smith was looking at a top-10 finish at Indy if not for the contact, and said last week's ninth-place result at Watkins Glen came despite an extra pit stop to tighten loose lug nuts. "I expect top-10s from here on out," the crew chief said.

That's music to the ears of his driver, who is finally turning in the kinds of finishes he expected to begin this season, and is confident that same level of performance can be sustained through Michigan and beyond.

"I can tell you, I'm not doing anything different inside the race car. I'm driving the race car the same way I have all year," Smith said. "Just a lot of new ideas, a lot of changes came in with Todd and Cole Pearn, our engineer. Between the two of them, they've changed a lot of things. The cars are driving better. The changes we're making are working, and fundamentally we're in a totally different direction."