I am not sure if anyone noticed, but Sunday was Toyota’s first race weekend this year without at least one car finishing in the top five on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Its highest finish was sixth with Kyle Busch. All this comes on the heels of the blown motors two weeks ago at Dover and the announcement that Toyota Racing Development president Lee White will retire at the end of the year.
Of course, no one on the outside really knows what is going on over at Toyota except the folks within their walls. You have to believe, though, they are making changes and will be going in the right direction. Setting the blown-motor issue aside, Toyota has had a successful early season. It has five wins in 14 races and has sat on eight poles.
Unfortunately, all that success was being overshadowed by engine woes that began last year and carried into 2013. As I mentioned earlier, two weeks ago at Dover was the most recent incident. Both Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex’s engines let go. Those two drivers had a legitimate shot of winning at the Monster Mile, only to see their chances literally go up in smoke.
It has been obvious all year that Toyota has been making tremendous power under the hood. With the continued failures however, Toyota officials knew they needed to make some changes. I really like the way they did it. They literally went and got the blessings from all six of their primary teams. Both the drivers and the crew chiefs gave their blessings on backing the engines down some.
A Toyota didn’t lead a single lap Sunday at Pocono, and, as previously mentioned, it was the first race of the season without one of its cars in the top five. The good news is there were two Toyotas in the top 10. You know Toyota again will be talking to its teams about how it wants to tackle Michigan this weekend, which is another track that can be very hard on engines.
It’s going to be a double-edged sword for particular drivers to decide how they want to go. For example, Denny Hamlin finished eighth Sunday but still lost two points on trying to make it into the top 20 in points, where he needs to be to even be considered for a Chase wild-card spot.
You need a lot of power at a place like Michigan, but the bottom line is you can’t win races, make the Chase or win the championship when you are in the garage, out of the race with a blown motor. Toyota has to solve the valve spring issue and feel confident in it before it starts putting power back in these Toyota engines.
So in the short term, I think, it is going to boil down to different agendas with these Toyota drivers. If you look at guys such as Kenseth and Kyle Busch, for instance, they already have multiple wins and are a pretty safe lock to make the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field. I might consider bumping their power back up and let them go for the win yet still risk a blown motor.
Hamlin is faced with a Catch-22 scenario. Like I mentioned earlier, he has to get himself at least into the top 20 in points, but he has to go out and win some races. That’s the only way he will be able to overcome losing those valuable points earlier in the year with the back injury and have a shot at the championship.
If I am the No. 55 car, which isn’t running for the championship, I would get very aggressive with that car. Basically use that car as the test car to try some things, because they have three different drivers behind the wheel of that car in five weeks of racing.
One of the two they have to be aggressive with is Clint Bowyer. Yes, he is third in points, but the concern is he still is winless. He can’t afford to fall out of the top 10 being too aggressive with his motor combination. The second one is his teammate Martin Truex Jr. because he has to have some solid runs.
Truex lost three spots in the points after Pocono and has fallen back to 17th in the points. So he has to put a string of great finishes together to not only keep him in the top 20 but also to try to snag some wins so that he, too, can make the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.