Toyota makes headway in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota, qualified first for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Sunday’s Auto Club 400 is a home race for Toyota, given that TRD, U.S.A., the automaker’s U.S. racing headquarters, is located in Costa Mesa, less than 50 miles away from Auto Club Speedway.

Matt Kenseth, who nearly won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship last year, will start from the pole here as he tries to win the race for a third time.

The fact that Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin regularly run up front and contend for victories, as do Michael Waltrip Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers, is proof that Toyota has firmly established itself in NASCAR’s top division. 

It’s a far cry from when Toyota began Sprint Cup Racing in 2007. That first season began disastrously, with Michael Waltrip being caught with a mysterious and highly illegal fuel additive in his car prior to the Daytona 500 and the entire 2007 season was marred by a number of DNQ’s from MWR, Red Bull and Bill Davis Racing, the first three Toyota Cup teams. 

"It was not only a learning curve for them (Toyota), it was a learning curve for the teams," said Vickers, who drove for Red Bull when they were a startup team. "Not only where they new, they wanted to approach it differently. They didn’t want to come in and buy big teams. They didn’t want to come in and take experience out of the sport, they wanted to add to the sport. And I commend them for that."

Nothing came easy at first. 

"They went about it in about the most difficult possible way they could go about it, not only for the betterment of themselves, but for the betterment of the sport," said Vickers.

In a weird way, the early struggles we’re sort of by design. 

Toyota racing boss talks IndyCar

"Part of our culture is such that we wanted to understand the social aspect of it (NASCAR racing,)" said TRD President and General Manager David Wilson. "We believed that for our company it was the right place for us. It was the right place to talk to the fans about the Americanization of Toyota, the fact that we build cars and trucks (here). But in doing that research and talking to the fans, we also realized that it was going to be a very polarizing consideration for the NASCAR fan base – a quote unquote foreign manufacturer joining the ranks."

And that meant coming in with a relatively low profile. 

"I don’t think our expectations that first year were that aggressive, knowing that we were new to the sport," said Wilson. "From an indirect benefit, I think that somewhat demonstrated to the fan base that we were being respectful of their sport. We weren’t going in heavy-handed."

Toyota had to overcome a perception in the garage – a perception gleefully fueled by some rival teams – that they would outspend the other manufacturers. 

"A lot of the conversation was the fear we were going to spend too much money, that we were going to change the economy of the sport," said Wilson. "We were well equipped to understand that. That’s not in our nature anyway. We came to understand that, unlike any other form of motorsport we had participated in in the past, NASCAR isn’t about that. Winning 26 races or 30 races out of 36 that’s not what this sport is about."

Meet the stars: NASCAR drivers hit up Hollywood

Toyota’s President Yukitoshi Funo told the TRD folks in Southern California that they should emulate the hit movie "Rocky."

"Mr. Funo had this elaborate tale of Rocky Balboa and how he got his lights punched out in the first 10 rounds but then came back. And that was kind of his analogy of how  we should enter the sport," said Wilson. "We joked that he used to pat us on the back when we just got killed, had cars that didn’t qualify. ‘Good, you’re doing it right.’ From his seat, this was – this play of NASCAR – was more about a cultural and a social statement.  It was about participating in a sport that was iconically American and hitching our wagon to that. At the time, he literally didn’t care whether we won. It’s not about winning, it’s about participating, about being good citizens now."

That might have been the prevailing mood in Japan, but it most definitely was not the case in Costa Mesa.  "On our end, it was like, ‘Well, that’s great, but we also want to win.’ And we were confident that would come in time, and it did and it has," said Wilson.

The turning point, of course, was signing Joe Gibbs Racing, one of the sport’s powerhouse teams in 2008. 

And while first Bill Davis Racing and then Red Bull shut down, Toyota made sure MWR and JGR worked together, which has helped both teams immensely. 

Dry weekend, fast racing at Auto Club Speedway

"It’s a long progression," said Hamlin, who nearly won a Cup championship in 2010.  "It’s hard to come in this sport and be on top of things. They’ve had their fair share of wins over these 10 years and a lot of poles, a lot of laps led.  Obviously a championship has escaped them a few times, but still it’s a pretty solid organization."

"You couldn’t have picked a more difficult path, but I think they added a lot to the sport," Vickers said of Toyota and TRD. "They’ve come so far since then."

In some ways, the Toyota NASCAR experiment has been a huge success; in others, it remains a work in progress. 

Toyota already has captured five driver’s and 11 manufacturer’s championships in the Nationwide and Truck Series.

And Toyota has won 63 Sprint Cup races and finished second in the driver’s championship last year (Kenseth), in 2013 (Clint Bowyer) and in 2010 (Hamlin).

So this year, the job remains the same: Win the big prizes – the Sprint Cup driver’s title and team title.

Kenseth will lead the flag to the field on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, and the smart money is that at least one Toyota driver will be firmly in the championship mix at the end of the season, too.