Furniture Row Racing adds second driver; Truex Jr. ready for Daytona 500

DENVER -- No Little Engine parked outside the press conference. No arm-twisting was required to bring a battery of reporters to media day.

The Furniture Row Racing team has evolved from an interesting story into a legitimate contender. No driver led more laps than Martin Truex Jr. last season in the No. 78 car. So consistent was his success, Furniture Row added a second car this year, signing promising youngster Erik Jones to a one-year deal to pilot the No. 77 ride. 

As Truex met the press Monday, he talked like a coach eyeing a championship, not a club hoping to reach .500. 

"I don't think people are surprised when we run in front, and I don't think they are surprised when we win. We are expected to do those things now," Truex Jr. told Denver 7 from the team's garage where his Furniture Row Racing Toyota sat near by. "We are expected to get there, so now it becomes, 'What do we do to stay here?'"

Months of rolled-up sleeves should begin paying off soon. Crew members loaded the cars onto the trailers en route to the Daytona 500 on Sunday night. NASCAR boasts one of the most unique season launches -- holding its Super Bowl event first rather than last. A win at Daytona changes lives, shapes careers. The winning car goes immediately into the race museum. Truex came agonizingly close to immortality last year, losing by 0.010 to Denny Hamlin, the shortest margin of victory since the track implemented electronic timing. 

Truex views his heartbreak as motivation rather than with any lingering disappointment.

"Thanks for reminding me of the (close call)," Truex said with a laugh. "I have been talking about it for weeks. I really feel we can do the same things again and put ourselves in position at the end to have a chance to win. It's a race where you have to be prepared for anything to happen."

Truex enjoyed a career year in 2016. He won four races, five poles and led 1,809 laps. NASCAR.com named him driver of the year. However, the season ended abruptly without an appearance in the final four championship round. Truex became predictable with his performances. A repeat this year will carry greater value. Under its new scoring format, NASCAR will reward points for top-10 finishers in race segments. The overall winner of the races receives the most points, but there no longer exists an all-or-nothing feel.

"It definitely has its advantages," Truex said. "It rewards consistency. That would have helped us last year. It rewards consistency and winning, and not just winning at the right time."

While Truex eyes a championship, this season represents a chance for Jones to establish himself. His first season begins behind the wheel of the No. 77 5 Hour Energy Toyota Camry. At age 19 a year ago, Jones won the 2015 Camping World Truck Series. He looks like he could be walking the halls of a local high school. Until you put him in the cockpit. Jones began driving quarter midgets at age 7, and was racing against men four times his age while in middle school in the stock car ranks. He joined Furniture Row in August. 

The learning curve figures to be steep. Jones has prepared for this moment by devouring books by and about athletes for years. His recent favorites include works on Allen Iverson and Brett Favre, both of which he read in roughly two days.

"For me it's just interesting to see sports from a different side, whether it's football, basketball or baseball. I love the stories," Jones told Denver7. "I like to see how they handled things early in their career, and if there's a possible shared experience with what I am doing. I want to be able to learn from their mistakes and successes."

Truex, for the first time in his career, will serve as a mentor. He credited older drivers for accelerating his development. In Jones, he has a prized pupil. The presence of two drivers Monday provided a testament to Furniture Row Racing's commitment to win the one big trophy at season's end.

"I definitely want to live up to the hype," Jones said. "I put that on myself the last year. I know the kind of team I am joining and what we expect to do."

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