Toyota Racing Development (TRD) passed two significant milestones last weekend in both NASCAR and NHRA. With Denny Hamlin driving a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry, the firm earned its 600th overall NASCAR victory when the Virginia driver took checkered flags on Pocono Raceway’s tricky triangle in NASCAR’s premier Cup Series. Just a few minutes after Hamlin earned that victory, in an all-Toyota match-up at Seattle Raceways, four-time NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence beat fellow Toyota racer Doug Kalitta in the final round, giving Toyota its 200th drag racing crown.
This isn’t something to sneer at, although that’s what many did when the Japanese manufacturer entered NASCAR’s Goody’s Dash Series in 2000, marking the start of a new era in NASCAR. It took until 2003 for Robert Huffman, who was second in the season-long title fight with Toyota in 2001 and 2002, to earn the manufacturer its first NASCAR championship.
So much has changed and, despite the fact that both Chevrolet and Ford have more wins – and more seasons under their collective belts – in NASCAR competition, now Toyota is more than a force to be chided. David Wilson, president of TRD, took a look at the company’s achievements in NASCAR, where it has won in all three national touring series, Craftsman Trucks, Xfinity and Cup Series, as well as its 200 straight-line wins in NHRA, but rather than looking back at his firm’s achievements, he’s looking forward to the next ones.
“In the competition business, where we compete every weekend in one form or fashion, it’s easy to quickly pat yourself on the back and go on to win No. 601 or No. 201, respectively. But that wouldn’t be appropriate for Toyota. TRD has put so much into motorsport and our commitment to NASCAR – and NHRA – is considerable. We’re looking at 20-plus years of competition, so as we reflect on our journey, we’re extremely proud,” he said.
There was skepticism when Toyota entered NASCAR as the first foreign brand to compete against Chevy, Ford and, at that point in time, against Dodge. “We knew our presence was going to be polarized,” Wilson confirmed. “We talked to fans, understood their concerns and that helped our strategies, because we knew we had to be driver-centric.” With Toyota’s acknowledged respect for the fans and its cooperation with NASCAR’s players, “Now we’re just one of the competitors” trying to win a race.
Although he no longer drives a Toyota, after leaving Joe Gibbs Racing at the close of the 2022 season, Kyle Busch has the most NASCAR victories for the brand. His 203 wins in all three national touring series gets the Nevada native great respect from Wilson and TRD. “He left, but we will alway celebrate his records set for Toyota together, the races, championships and, although he’s not with us anymore, we’re not surprised he picked up where he let off. We continue to wish him well,” Wilson stressed.
Denny Hamlin earned his 61st Toyota win last weekend on Pocono’s tough track and Wilson acknowledged the huge role Hamlin has played. “Watching his maturation as both driver, team owner, as a human being, as a person, we’re proud of that. Consider that 15 years ago it was difficult to have a conversation with Denny about the weather when you were standing next to him on the grid – he’s come a long way.” Hamlin, currently in his contract year, “will be back, no question in our minds ,in Joe’s (Gibbs’) mind. We’re working through the details and it’s complicated because he’s not only a driver; he’s also an owner. The new contract,” Wilson said, “has to be aligned across all of Denny’s arenas.”
Toyota also has to work with Martin Truex Jr. to discern his upcoming plans – Truex currently leads the Cup Series points standings – and Wilson noted that Coach Gibbs is “happy to give Martin as much time as he needs to confirm or deny” his intention to race for Gibbs and Toyota in the future. Toyota does have a pipeline and is working in the background to form a contingency plan if Truex Jr. elects to hang up his helmet. Of course they’re not talking about it…
Like any manufacturer entered in competition, Toyota sets numerical targets every season and the most important metric is the playoffs that begin soon in NASCAR’s three touring series. “Our aggressive goal is to be in it for the final race,” held at Phoenix Raceway this November. So far, with 21 points-paying races held in Cup competition, Toyota has won seven of them, despite having fewer cars entered than either Chevy or Ford, their sole competition. In 2007, when Toyota entered Cup Series competition, the goal was not to win those 600 races; it was simply to make the Daytona 500, first race of the year for NASCAR. “It’s hard to fast-forward 20 years but we were worried we would miss that race in 2007,” Wilson reflected.
When Toyota hits Indianapolis Motor Speedway, its sports car ace, Kamui Kobayashi will be competing with 23XI Racing, the Denny Hamlin/Michael Jordan enterprise. He won’t be the only international star at Indy, as Shane van Gisbergen, who won the Cup Series contest on the streets of Chicago is returning, as is Formula One 2009 champ Jenson Button and Brodie Kostecki, currently second in Australian Supercars. Wilson is delighted to see drivers trying different types of competition and thinks Kobayashi’s Indy entry might send the driver to the US for more events.
“Indy wasn’t our first choice for Kamui; that was Watkins Glen, but he had commitments in Japan that weekend he couldn’t get out of. I went to Le Mans this year to announce Kamui’s NASCAR entry for Indy and the European fans were excited. They know his abilities; he’s a name and face known worldwide, especially in Japan where he’s huge.” After Shane van Gisbergen’s conquest in Chicago, “Without a doubt there is more interest and Kamui’s excitement is palpable.” Kobayashi came to Chicago, witnessed the Australian Supercar champion’s victory and his excitement about racing in America was even more elevated. “Kamui is one of the best sports car racers in the world but he’s never run a NASCAR race. These guys thrive on the challenge, measuring themselves against the best in the world.”
The first team to align with Toyota in NHRA was Kalitta Motorsports, a group that’s had issues getting down the 1,000-foot drag strip the past couple of years. Toyota has been right there with them, with Slugger Labbe helping the three-car nitro team of Doug Kalitta and Shawn Langdon in Top Fuel, together with 2018 Funny Car champ J.R. Todd, as they turn the corner on the season. All three drivers were in the semifinals at Denver, with Doug Kalitta in both Denver and Seattle finals as he works towards his 50th national event win. Todd was runner-up at Seattle.
“Kalitta Motorsports were early adopters in our program,” Wilson stressed. “Taking a chance on this partnership means the world to Toyota. And yes, they have been struggling. But for Toyota, bringing on [Ron] Capps, who gave Toyota its 2022 Funny Car title, Steve and Billy Torrence, the importance of that helped benchmark other teams. Being able to benchmark, no matter the series, is critical. The fact that Ron, Steve and Billy indirectly helped the Kalittas makes me delighted they are making speed again, that Doug is going rounds and starting to turn around their performance,” he said.
At this time NHRA’s top two Top Fuel points leaders are part of the Toyota family (Steve Torrence and Justin Ashley) and the manufacturer has two of the top three in Funny Car, Capps and Alexis DeJoria are second and third with their Toyota GR Supra race cars. “We’ve been hard at it the last couple of years and yes, one of our teams lost their way a little bit but we’re always searching for improvement. You never think you’re better than anyone else,” Wilson stated. “We’re always searching for improvement and those feelings are momentary.”
In both NASCAR and NHRA, “2023 is shaping up to be a special season for us. The current regular season points leaders in both NASCAR and NHRA are Toyota-based and we’re leading in IMSA’s GTD category, leading in ARCA and USAC. It’s a really special season and a tribute to absolute reflection on this TRD team, reflection on Toyota and our commitment to North American motorsports. Racing shapes our brands and gives us more awareness. There’s still a lot of racing to be done and the wheels could fall off any moment,” he chided. “That, Wilson said, “is a function of racing.”