Hamlin’s triumph puts cap on dominant Speedweeks for Toyota

It may have taken Toyota a while to win some of NASCAR’s biggest prizes but the automaker sure seems to have gotten the hang of it.

Last year for the first time, Toyota won the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race and the Brickyard 400, two of the sport’s most prestigious races. And Kyle Busch delivered a first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship for Toyota last year, too.

Now, the last unchecked box in the Toyota resume has been filled in, after five Toyotas combined to utterly and totally dominate the Daytona 500.

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In the closest finish in the 58-year history of NASCAR’s biggest race, Denny Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota edged the Furniture Row Racing Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. by 0.01 seconds to lead the automaker’s sweep of the top-three places on Sunday.

Busch, one of Hamlin’s JGR teammates, finished third. Carl Edwards’ fifth-place run meant three JGR cars finished in the top five, with Truex a fourth top-five Toyota, albeit with a different team. Fourth-place finisher Kevin Harvick’s Chevrolet was the lone entry to crash the Toyota party.

During Speedweeks, Toyotas won the Sprint Unlimited, one of the two Can-Am Duels and now the Daytona 500, where four Toyotas combined to lead 156 of 200 laps.

How big was it? Just ask Toyota’s boss of racing operations here.

“This is very difficult for me to put in words,” said David Wilson, the president of TRD, U.S.A. “I cannot articulate adequately what this means to Toyota. I’ll start by saying 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.”

“This is a team victory,” Hamlin said. “My teammates did an amazing job all day working together — all the Toyotas. This is a proud moment for everyone at Toyota … We had talked about a plan overnight to just work together, work together and I’ve never seen it executed so flawlessly as what we did today.”

The competition was well aware of how good the Toyotas were.

“The Toyota group were really good today,” said Joey Logano, the 2015 Daytona 500 winner. “They were working together better than anybody and they had the fastest cars and they deserved to win the race.”

When Toyota began Sprint Cup racing in 2007, its early efforts were difficult, starting with one of its teams getting caught with an illegal fuel additive in the Daytona 500 and all three of its teams — none of which is in NASCAR any more — frequently struggling just to qualify for races.

“It was incredibly humbling,” Wilson said. “But we didn’t expect to succeed either. Obviously back in 2004, 2007, when we started Cup racing, the fans were apprehensive. I think it was a polarizing issue, Toyota being here in the sport. I think our struggles, it so much humanized us and showed everybody that we’re going to have to work as hard as anybody. Nothing comes easy. The level of competition that this sport has amongst the teams and engineers is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, including CART and IndyCar.”