DAYTONA BEACH, Florida: A decade ago, Toyota was the upstart manufacturer trying to find some semblance of traction in stock car racing.
It encountered one speed bump after another as it doggedly carved out a niche in NASCAR. There was resistance as the old guard – Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge – grudgingly yielded a thin slice of the pie, particularly in the Sprint Cup Series.
In 2007, the Japanese manufacturer figured it had developed the right chemistry with Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) and Michael Waltrip Racing (WMR). But the two teams shared as much information as toddlers do toys.
Still, JGR continued to win races, including seven by Matt Kenseth in 2013, even as engineers struggled to find the correct engine and aerodynamics package to keep its drivers competitive from the short tracks to the superspeedways. It knocked on the championship door, but Kenseth and Denny Hamlin couldn’t get in.
For all of Toyota’s success and near misses, perhaps nothing haunted it as much as the debacle in Richmond three years ago when MWR drivers, including Martin Truex Jr., were ordered to take short cuts to help Clint Bowyer advance to the Chase. It was an incident that overshadowed a 2013 season in which Toyota’s drivers accumulated 14 Cup victories.
It was a black eye for the sport. But a far deeper wound for Toyota, which wondered about its place in the sport after a difficult, disjointed 2014 season in which its drivers combined for two Cup wins.
Yet, in a span of four months, Toyota has risen to the top. Kyle Busch delivered the manufacturer its first Cup championship in November.
Then, Hamlin, in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history, gave Toyota the crown jewel of NASCAR to cement its place in stock car racing. It’s an achievement that seemed far-fetched a decade ago.
“It’s our single biggest race in our company’s history,” said David Wilson, who leads Toyota’s research and development. “I’ll put it in front of the Indy 500, which was a pretty special one back in 2003.”
“I still remember 2007. Our goal was to qualify for races. We didn’t know if we could. For Bill Davis and Michael Waltrip and Red Bull, we brought two new teams in the sport,” Wilson added.
Clearly, it hasn’t been easy for Toyota. It’s why Wilson and Joe Gibbs were giddy Sunday night.
“You remember the years where TRD, Toyota, got a lot of heat,” Wilson said. “We get our hands dirty. I often say that sometimes that’s not the most fun way to do it. Sometimes I want to say, just let the teams do everything and we’ll support them as best we can. That’s not our culture.”
Nothing, however, builds trust in NASCAR as much as winning. It was clear from the moment JGR and Furniture Row Racing, owner of Truex’s No. 78 Toyota, pulled into the World Center of Racing that it had the dominant cars.
Hamlin flexed his muscles by winning the Sprint Unlimited and Kenseth earned a front row position opposite pole winner Chase Elliott.
More impressively, Toyota had four of the top five finishers in the 500: Hamlin, Truex (second), Busch (third) and Carl Edwards (fifth).
“It’s taken time for us to collectively build an organization with our team partners that is capable of winning races and competing for championships,” Wilson said. “We feel confident about the future.”
“We were probably down the list some [for Toyota],” said Gibbs, whose last Daytona 500 win came 23 years ago with Dale Jarrett piloting the No. 18 Chevrolet. “We had a chance to talk to Toyota. When that became a reality, it was really special for us.”