Toyota: No Longer A NASCAR Punchline

Edwards at Darlington

 

What if I told you a Toyota has won 10 of the last 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races? What if I told you that Toyota trails Chevrolet by just 63 points in the season’s manufacturer standings (by the way, Ford is just four points further back of Toyota.) Today, it might be believable, but imagine if I were looking into the future from 2007 and predicting this.

It wasn’t that many years ago, Toyota’s hopes in the NSCS hinged on Michael Waltrip Racing, Bill Davis Racing and Team Red Bull. The closest thing the manufacturer had to a star racing with the Camry nameplate on his piece was Dale Jarrett- a former champion to be sure- but a driver clearly in the twilight of his career. The other was Jarrett’s boss, Michael Waltrip, famous more for his “good ol’ boy” persona than his racing resume.

Making matters worse, MWR was hammered by NASCAR after the discovery of an illegal fuel additive before the 2007 Daytona 500- a black eye for a manufacturer not given the warmest of welcomes by traditionalists offended by the presence of a “foreign” make in an “all-American” racing series. In 2007, just making a race was considered an accomplishment, a track record far different from Toyota had already accomplished in NASCAR’s truck series.

The switch to Toyota by Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 changed everything for Toyota. It meant a number of Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin fans swallowing hard to accept the move by JGR. Busch did his employer and his employer’s brand a huge favor by going on a spring and summer tear, giving the Japanese auto maker their first Cup Series victory in the Kobalt Tools 500 in Atlanta, en route to eight for the season.

Since then, Hamlin has emerged into one of NASCAR’s more accomplished drivers, finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in 2010. Driving for Michael Waltrip, Clint Bowyer was runner-up to 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski. One season later, Joe Gibbs newcomer Matt Kenseth appeared to have a second career championship in hand, before Johnson pulled off his sixth title.

Carl Edwards has become the latest NASCAR driver to switch to a team running Toyotas to find success when many predicted such a move to be a step back. The same was said Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer when they came to MWR; however, both drivers had seasons of success before the team’s fortunes began to plummet in the wake of the scandal at Richmond in 2013. Matt Kenseth- like Edwards- left Jack Roush, once a flagship team for Ford, for Joe Gibbs, and found new life in his career.

Is this the year that Toyota bags its first Sprint Cup Series championship? There’s no question the Gibbs squad is in top form right now. Things can change in terms of competitive balance faster than you can turn a lap at Martinsville, but right now, the likes of Busch, Edwards, Kenseth and Hamlin are running with the big dogs and they don’t appear to be running out of breath.