AVONDALE, Ariz. -- A year ago, Ryan Newman nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history by playing the new elimination-style Chase format to perfection and nearly beating Kevin Harvick to the Sprint Cup championship.
Newman didn't win a race in 2014, but he and his Richard Childress Racing team peaked at the right time and used a series of top-5 finishes in the 10-race Chase to vault into title contention. In a year when Harvick and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing group were the dominant team from start to finish, Newman pushed them to the brink, finishing second to Harvick in the finale.
This year's popular underdog is clearly Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing. It's not FRR's first Chase appearance; they made it in 2013 with Kurt Busch before he joined Stewart-Haas Racing. But Truex, new to the team in 2014, faced significant personal problems as his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, battled cancer and the No. 78 team fell well short of the expectations Busch helped create.
With Pollex in remission, Truex went through most of 2015 in a much better state of mind, and he and the FRR Chevrolet were competitive from the moment the green flag flew at Daytona in February. They set a team record with seven consecutive top-10 finishes to start the season, a roll that extended to 14 of the first 15 races, including an emotional victory at Pocono Raceway in June.
A semi-slump followed, but since the Chase began in September, Truex and the rest of the team behind the No. 78 car regained their Spring form with five finishes in the top eight and nothing lower than their 15th-place finish at Kansas Speedway. A 14th-place finish Sunday night at Phoenix, where he spent most of the race shadowing Carl Edwards, his closest competitor for the last Championship Round berth, was enough to advance to Homestead.
"It's definitely obviously an exciting day for everybody at Furniture Row Racing and me," Truex said Sunday night. "Just super proud of my team for the season we've been able to put together, and I feel like we've overcome a lot of obstacles.
"We have kind of overcome a lot of odds, and I'm just proud to be part of this group and looking forward to having the opportunity to do something that we've all dreamed about our whole lives next weekend."
When the Chase kicked off at Chicagoland Speedway in September, Truex was bullish about his team's chances even though they had managed only three top-10 finishes since the Pocono win.
As a one-car team that operates on a fraction of the budget of multicar superteams from Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, FRR was not able to optimize a setup for the low- and high-downforce packages NASCAR experimented with throughout the summer.
Once the baseline 2015 aero components were put back into play for the Chase, Truex and FRR have been right back on their early-season pace, almost always running in the top 10 and frequently in the top five.
"When we started screwing around with all that stuff, we were second in points, we had the most top-10s, we had won a race, and we felt like we were going to go after this championship," Truex said. "We kind of got off track a little bit."
A series of consistent runs in the Chase has put Truex and FRR in a position to be the ultimate giant-killers at Homestead. And don't write them off: It has been a good track for Truex. He has been in the running at the finish in nine of his 10 Homestead starts, with eight finishes in the top 11 and five in the top six.
"We don't have a lot of expectations on us," he said while talking to reporters a few days before the Chase began. "I think most people didn't even have us moving through the first round. For us, it's more about personal goals and wanting to prove people wrong and just go out there and really just do a great job.
"I think for some of the guys that are favorites or expected to be there, I think there's more pressure on them, so I think we're in a great spot if we can get to Homestead."
Mission accomplished in that regard. And with the way things have played out in a fairly wild 2015 Sprint Cup season, the possibility of Truex and the matte-black No. 78 Furniture Row car carrying home the crown is not that far fetched.
After all, Newman and RCR came oh-so-close a year ago, and Truex and FRR have put together a more consistently competitive season in 2015 than Newman & Co. had in that underdog season.
"With the way our stuff has been running here lately, it's been really good, and we were really strong at Texas," Truex said. "I feel like what we're taking to Homestead might be a little bit better.
"I'm excited to get to Homestead because it has been a really good track for me over the years, and we get a chance to pull off our first win there."