Toyota is on the doorstep and is close enough to stepping into the throne room to be able to see the goodies inside.
But the door is not open – not yet.
A strong close to the season would give Denny Hamlin the Sprint Cup championship – his first and Toyota’s first. The car builder has made a quick climb from its first full Cup season in 2007 and is two races from becoming the first foreign-based manufacturer to win NASCAR’s flagship title.
But those famous chickens? You don’t count them until their arrival.
“I think everyone at Toyota is extremely excited and hopeful,” said Toyota Racing Development president Lee White, overseer of the car builder’s NASCAR program. “But last night I told my boss, who called me very excited and hopeful, that if we’ve done our work right, we can win. I never tell him we WILL win.”
Hamlin has a 33-point edge over four-time champion Jimmie Johnson and a 59-point lead over Kevin Harvick entering Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway. With only Phoenix and Homestead remaining on the schedule, Hamlin clearly is in the driver’s seat. But, of course, wacky things can happen. In a season in which super-stable drivers like Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton almost spark a throwdown fight, anything can be expected.
“I think we can win it, but if you look at the way the points flipped, it could just as easily reverse itself,” White said. “Plus, Jimmie runs really good at Phoenix. It could go right back. But, I’m absolutely excited and on edge. I think everyone is.”
Toyota, which has a long and fruitful history of involvement in international motorsports, dipped its toes into NASCAR in 2000 with a limited run in the now-defunct Goody’s Dash Series for subcompact cars.
In 2001, driver Robert Huffman scored Toyota’s first NASCAR victory, winning a Dash series race at Kentucky Speedway. Huffman won the series title driving a Celica in 2003, and Toyota advanced into the Truck Series in 2004 as it built toward an eventual debut in Sprint Cup.
Toyota’s Cup history began in 2007, but its real potential wasn’t reached until 2008, when the manufacturer enticed the Joe Gibbs Racing team, an organization with championship history and established drivers, into the fold. JGR driver Kyle Busch scored Toyota’s landmark first Cup victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March of that season.
“Is it our time? I don’t know,” White said. “I think a higher power will have to decide that, but it won’t be for lack of effort.”
He said it’s “business as usual” within the Toyota Cup community as JGR and the Toyota leadership prepare for the final two weeks.
“You can’t possible cover every conceivable situation that might arise, but we know we’re partnered with great organizations and that everybody’s pulling on the same rope,” White said. “I’m sitting in our offices in Salisbury (N.C.), and no one went to lunch. Everybody’s hard at work. We’re at the teams’ beck and call.
“I got a note this week from Mike Ford (Hamlin’s crew chief) that was sent to Andy Graves (Toyota’s NASCAR program manager) saying he appreciated the consideration and help they got from everybody during the race at Texas.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.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.