With every race win by Denny Hamlin and every brash moment from Kyle Busch, NASCAR racing moves closer to a very real possibility that couldn’t have been imagined before the turn of the century – Toyota, a foreign-based manufacturer, winning the Sprint Cup championship.
Almost halfway through the Cup season, Toyota has two drivers – Busch and Hamlin – in the top three in Sprint Cup points. Both are virtually certain to be in the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup, and both likely will be among the top three or four favorites when that 10-race run begins.
Hamlin has won five races – two more than any other driver, and Busch has won twice, giving Toyota lead team Joe Gibbs Racing victories in seven of the season’s first 15 events.
Suddenly, people are forgetting about four-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson, and that’s saying a lot.
Toyota has been in NASCAR racing for a decade, but its involvement began with baby steps in 2000 as Robert Huffman campaigned a Celica in the now-defunct Goody’s Dash subcompact series. Truck Series racing followed, and the manufacturer broke into the Cup Series in 2007 with teams from Michael Waltrip Racing, Red Bull Racing and the now-defunct Bill Davis Racing.
It was a low-key start, but Toyota crossed the bridge (the ocean?) to the top level of competition by convincing team owner Joe Gibbs to leave General Motors and sign on with Toyota for the 2008 season. Gibbs, owner of a proven championship organization, and his drivers immediately gave the manufacturer standing among the big dogs.
Now, Gibbs’ top drivers are poised to make a real run at the title. With Toyota’s departure from Formula One last season after years of disappointment in that global series (no wins in eight seasons), there are more eyes on how the car builder fares in NASCAR circles.
“We enjoyed working in virtual anonymity for a couple of years because they [the Toyota F1 operation] had a lot of focus and attention from the company,” said Lee White, Toyota’s top NASCAR executive. “Now, for all intents and purposes, we’re the focal point of Toyota’s motorsports program worldwide, with the exception of some things going on in Japan.”
There are many miles to race, and beating the established Chevrolet teams – in particular – will be difficult, White acknowledges, but pondering the possibility of a first-ever Cup championship by a foreign-based manufacturer is wandering in historic territory.
“Would it be big?” White repeated a question. “Of course it would, especially considering the period of time we’ve been engaged in the sport. It’s only our fourth year in Cup racing. Just look at the competition and how long they’ve been here and the strength of their organizations. I think the size of the accomplishment would be greater than any of us realize, to be able to do it that quickly.
“First, though, we need to execute. There’s still a long way to go. We have to keep our heads down and not get distracted. There are a lot of really good teams and really good drivers that are on the threshold of winning every single event.”
That, however, was not the case Sunday at Michigan International Speedway as Hamlin embarrassed the rest of the field by leading 123 of 200 laps and winning the Heluva Good 400 without a serious challenge. It was his fifth win in the past 10 races.
After going winless in the first five races of the season, Toyota has won seven of 10.
“It wasn’t so good for the first five,” White said. “In fact, I was getting a little nervous after the first five. With our associates in Europe closing down their F1 program, that essentially made our program highly visible. When we went through the first five races without winning any, I was getting a little nervous, but then it started clicking and we won this one and this one and then another one.”It seems to have happened almost overnight, but now Toyota is being talked about in the same way that the Hendrick Chevrolets have dominated NASCAR discussions.
Did the Toyota F1 retreat provide a boost to the NASCAR program? Yes, White said, but not with the arrival of a boatload of cash.
“Did a bunch of money suddenly come our way? Absolutely not,” he said. “But they kept some of the best and brightest people who were associated with that program. We’ve been able to keep some of those people busy doing some projects for us and working with our teams [while in Europe]. It’s given us access to some intellectual power and tools we didn’t have access to before.”
With Toyota having placed itself in prime position to challenge for the championship this season, can the parent organization pump even more support to its lead team when the Chase begins?
“That’s a constant discussion you’re having with the teams,” White said. “What can you do? There are things that are happening as we speak to try to improve everything so the guys can come off the truck better prepared. There are aero work, work on engine durability and power and range, fuel economy. You hope you can start banking a little so that if you get an opportunity in the Chase you can use it.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.