While working together, Visser and Robertson got to talking about what it would take to start a Busch team. Within a few months Visser's hobby had led to a second career—as a race team owner. "He had a passion," recalls Robertson. "It was his goal, his dream, to have a successful NASCAR team this side of the Mississippi."
OPERATING A CUP TEAM AWAY FROM THE SPORT'S HUB HAD been done before. Owners Cotton Owens and Bud Moore both ran out of Spartanburg, S.C., and Owens won the 1966 title with David Pearson. In the '70s, DiGard Racing was based in Daytona Beach. Morgan-McClure Motorsports began running out of Abingdon, Va., and won the Daytona 500 three times in the '90s; for 51 years the Wood Brothers ran their Cup shop out of Stuart, Va. But those are all relative neighbors to NASCAR's capital. Denver is about a 26-hour drive from Charlotte.
That didn't faze Visser and Garone, the latter of whom Robertson knew from their short-track-racing days in Denver in the early '80s. While the team started out building its own engines, Garone, who became the team's full-time general manager in 2007, saw that Furniture Row couldn't contend on the Cup circuit if it didn't have more cutting-edge equipment, and the team began an engine-lease program with Hendrick Motorsports in late '07. Garone also realized that he could transport engines, transmissions and parts to and from North Carolina in the back of a truck Furniture Row used to haul fabric to that area of the country. Once a week, the truck would drop off a used engine in Charlotte—so that Hendrick could rebuild it—and also pick up an engine and other parts for the next race before returning to the shop. "We work about two weeks ahead," says Garone. "We have to be a little more prepared because of the miles that are driven."
In its first two years the team struggled, finishing in the top 15 only once in 2008 (over 33 races with Joe Nemechek and Kenny Wallace) and twice in '09 (while starting 18 races with Regan Smith). But before the '10 season Furniture Row launched a technical and engineering alliance with Richard Childress Racing and by the end of the year was leasing engines from RCR, a move that, as Garone put it, "tied it all together." Now, in a sort of friends-with-benefits arrangement, Garone wasn't just running a single-car team halfway across the country from every other NASCAR operation. He was heading up a shop that was sharing race and testing data with three other drivers and teams at RCR, one of the sport's powerhouse organizations. "It was a perfect match for RCR," says owner Richard Childress. "We've [also] been able to lean on their people, their engineers."
Over the last year Smith has detected a consistency in his race car from week to week. "It just makes the weekend so much easier when [Regan] comes off the truck and he has a feel he's familiar with," says crew chief Pete Rondeau, a onetime Dale Earnhardt Jr. pit boss who along with Garone credits the RCR alliance for a good deal of the team's improvement. The consistency, along with the experience that the then-26-year-old Smith gained at every track during his first 36-race season in 2010, contributed to the team's recent success and that win at Darlington.
Last summer Smith bought a house on a mountain in Evergreen, Colo., about 40 minutes from the Furniture Row shop in Denver. (His secluded property is frequented by bears, mountain lions and foxes.) He married his longtime girlfriend in November and now calls Colorado home. "It's a lifestyle change," says Smith, who has gone so far as to take up snowboarding. This from a driver who when he first interviewed at Furniture Row, after the 2008 season, was skeptical. "But the more I got to know them, I said, 'Holy cow, this thing's in Colorado, but it all makes sense,' " Smith recalls. "I saw the passion."
Garone thinks Colorado may even help in recruiting talent—"I have one person in our engineering group who came to work for us because he was already going hunting every year in Colorado," he says—and Smith sees the location as dovetailing with the team's values. "The main thing is the dedication and commitment," says Smith, who won Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2008. "In North Carolina a guy could get a job from a shop that's literally a mile down the road. You're not going to do that here. These guys have packed up their families."
As Rondeau, who spent 2005--09 as a director of research and development for what is now Richard Petty Motorsports, says, "It's a different world here. It's not the big corporate America feel. The fun of racing is still here. That's what I think I found again here in Denver."