Gluck: Toyota stockpiling NASCAR’s major trophies – USA TODAY
Jeff Gluck of USA TODAY Sports previews the top story lines at the upcoming Sprint All-Star Race.
USA TODAY Sports
CHARLOTTE — During the past year in NASCAR, Toyota has been hogging wins like it’s DJ Khaled: Another one.
Race after race, particularly in big moments, Toyota has shown it’s the best by piling up trophies and dominating the Sprint Cup Series with NASCAR’s version of a Serena Slam.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of Toyota’s current run through NASCAR’s crown jewel races. The manufacturer is the defending champion of the NASCAR All-Star Race (Denny Hamlin), the Coca-Cola 600 (Carl Edwards), the Brickyard 400 (Kyle Busch), the Southern 500 (Edwards), the Daytona 500 (Hamlin) and the Sprint Cup Series championship (Busch).
There’s no true NASCAR grand slam like in tennis or golf, but those are the most prestigious events. And Toyota has won them all.
The scary part for the competition? With six wins in the past seven races, it certainly doesn’t seem like the Camrys are slowing down anytime soon.
“It just keeps clicking along,” said Ed Laukes, Toyota vice president of marketing, media, incentives and motorsports. “People talk a lot about momentum, but we just have an unbelievable relationship going on right now between the drivers, crew chiefs, TRD (Toyota Racing Development) and all the chassis builders, just working so well together and working for the common goal.”
That goal: Keep doing what it takes to stay on top in a sport where other teams can quickly catch up by making even slight gains in speed. There’s a fine line between first and 21st in NASCAR (it’s a couple tenths of a second), and Toyota knows its position is tenuous.
“We could be on top one of the weeks and then the other guys find something and start to dominate,” Laukes told USA TODAY Sports Thursday. “We’re by no means looking at this as we’ve got a free ride toward another championship. That would be a huge misstep on our part.”
To this point, though, the last 365 days have been an enjoyable ride.
In 2014, Chevrolet won all the major trophies in a single calendar year. Toyota hasn’t done that yet — that’s why it’s a Serena Slam — but it’s been on quite a roll. Camrys have now won 18 of the last 33 races dating to June 2015.
Of course, discussing Toyota means mostly referring to one team: Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s the JGR drivers who have won all the Toyota races, though new alliance partner Furniture Row Racing (with driver Martin Truex Jr.) has also looked strong this season.
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But it all starts with the manufacturer, which builds the engines and provides technical support to the teams.
“Without Toyota, I’m not sure we’d be as strong as we are,” 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch said. “With the amount of resources they give us … and the amount of people they have employed behind the scenes, it certainly helps us out a lot to continue the development of our cars in order to get better.”
What a difference a decade makes. In 2007, when Toyota first entered the Sprint Cup Series, the manufacturer was mostly known as the butt of jokes. Michael Waltrip Racing was hammered with a humiliating fuel-tampering penalty before the season-opening Daytona 500 and Toyota cars were so slow, they had trouble qualifying for races all year.
These days, Toyota is so successful that Chevrolet and Ford fans on social media complain NASCAR must be giving the manufacturer some sort of secret advantage.
But that’s a theory with no basis in fact.
“I guarantee you (Chevrolet team owner) Rick Hendrick is not having his team meetings every week and saying, ‘Toyotas are getting handed wins,’” Laukes said. “What Rick Hendrick is saying to his guys is, ‘You guys better figure out why Toyotas are winning every single week and make our cars better.’”
That’s essentially what Joe Gibbs did last March when his team had fallen behind. Busch was sidelined indefinitely with a broken leg and foot, and the Toyota teams looked considerably off compared to the competition. Laukes said both JGR and Toyota were “shell-shocked” at the time.
But that changed shortly after Gibbs brought JGR personnel together for a meeting, where the three-time Super Bowl champion coach yelled at his employees to pick up the pace. Within a couple months, the speed deficit had been erased.
Was it a coincidence? Maybe. Either way, now it’s the competition who is chasing Toyota while the manufacturer continues to pursue its own goals.
Laukes is seeking more wins, another championship and perhaps the elusive Manufacturer’s Championship — which has been won by Chevrolet for 13 years in a row (Toyota currently leads).
“It feels pretty good when you look at everything we’ve been accomplishing,” he said. “But it by no means does that set us up to rest on our laurels.”
Follow Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck