When Toyota Racing Development and Joe Gibbs Racing began work on finding a new affiliate team to replace Furniture Row Racing next season, car owner Bob Leavine stepped forward, eager to help his organization gain a competitive boost.
Leavine Family Racing announced the anticipated switch from Chevrolet to the Toyota Racing banner Wednesday, jointly presenting Matt DiBenedetto as the No. 95 team’s driver for 2019. The organization will share a tight technical alliance with JGR, Toyota’s flagship operation.
That partnership will fill the void that Furniture Row will create when it leaves the series at season’s end. The Colorado-based operation switched from Chevy to Toyota in 2016, winning the Monster Energy Series championship with Martin Truex Jr. the following year.
While LFR stands to improve from its current 25th-place perch in the series’ team owner standings, Leavine cautioned against heightened expectations that any performance upswing would fall on a similar arc to Furniture Row’s. Breaking into the 2019 playoff field, for instance, may be a heady goal.
“Sixteen is going to be really difficult,” Leavine said, noting the standings’ threshold number to qualify for the postseason field. “In fact, the number we looked at and did our pro forma for financial is 18, so top 20 because you beat a lot of good cars to get to there. We are going to a superior engine program with great bodies and chassis and all that, but we’ve still got to put it together with the people and the car, crew chief, engineers — it’s a changeover. … It’s progression.
“I know people are going to look, well, Furniture Row. We’re not Furniture Row. We haven’t been racing as long as Furniture Row did when they got their (first) win and got their championship. So we’ll take it, we want to get better, we want to progress. If we put unrealistic expectations on us, this ain’t going to have no fun. And it’s still got to be some fun. It’s tough, but it’s still got to be some fun.”
Indeed, Furniture Row had already started contending and winning by the time it entered into the agreement with Toyota, and team owner Barney Visser’s outfit had a six-year run of full-time competition before its manufacturer change. In contrast, Leavine Family Racing competed on a full-time basis for the first time just last season.
Leavine said locking in its driver and manufacturer for 2019 was roughly a six-month process. LFR will remain a one-car operation next year in an effort to build a better foundation for the future, but the team owner indicated that the progress was ongoing, with decisions still to be made on key personnel. Helping those people click, all while tempering expectations, will be the next challenge.
“They don’t have the same people that Furniture Row has, and that can’t be understated,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. “It’s one thing to have hardware, but in Furniture Row’s case, to have guys like (crew chief) Cole Pearn and (lead engineer) Jeff Curtis and those guys, that’s a big part of it. …
“No doubt, it is a taller hill to climb and we’re starting from lower, in the foothills. And again, we’ve had very candid, honest conversation with Bob and they realize that, but as I said, Bob had the vision and the courage to raise his hand and say, I want to put myself in a better position, I want to take the next step competitively.”