DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Oh, what a feeling!
Toyota notched its first Daytona 500 victory Sunday, winning "The Great American Race" three months after its first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
"This is very difficult for me to put in words. I cannot articulate adequately what this means to Toyota," said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. "It's our single biggest race in our company's history. I'll put it in front of the Indy 500, which was a pretty special one back in 2003."
Gil de Ferran delivered Toyota the Indy 500 victory. Denny Hamlin provided the Daytona 500 win.
"For me, the most enjoyable thing out of winning is seeing people that invest with you, all the time and the resources that they put with us," said Joe Gibbs, Hamlin's team owner. "Then to see them win and be that happy, get a chance to celebrate, it's really a thrill for me."
When Toyota made its Cup debut in 2007, many thought the Japanese automaker would find quick success because of its deep pockets. But the road to victory lane was far from smooth.
Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota's flagship team, was busted for cheating during the 2007 Daytona 500. High-profile Red Bull Racing struggled to make races and ultimately left NASCAR after four full seasons. And Toyota's third team, Bill Davis Racing, was mostly an also-ran.
"It's heart-wrenching that none of the freshmen class are still with us," Wilson said. "That's not the end of the story that any of us wanted to see. But again, it goes to how difficult, how competitive the sport is.
Toyota's fortunes changed dramatically when Joe Gibbs Racing switched from Chevrolet in 2008.
"They took a chance on Toyota," Wilson said. "Look at where they were. Three-time champions. They took a chance on us. The pressure that put on our shoulders to deliver was enormous. I hated that it's taken us this long."
Toyota dominated Speedweeks. Hamlin won the Daytona 500 on Sunday, eight days after winning the exhibition Sprint Unlimited. And Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, the reigning Cup champion, won one of the two qualifying races.
Toyota also claimed four of the top five spots in the 500, with Martin Truex Jr. finishing second, Busch third and Carl Edwards fifth.
It was the kind of finish many, including Wilson, thought would happen years earlier.
"We knew it was going to be a long, tough slog," Wilson said. "I'll admit that I thought within the first five years we might have a shot at a championship. I think the first time I cried in this sport was 2010 when Denny came to Homestead with a 15-point lead and we lost. Had he won, we would have made that five-year target.
"Like in life, when you go through trials, you have the emotion and the heartache, and when you do achieve a level of success, it truly is sweeter. Perspective truly is a wonderful thing to have."