Toyota’s time? Manufacturer seeking return to Richmond glory
The first part of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has been fairly tough on Toyota.
With just one win in eight races, the Japanese automaker hasn’t enjoyed the kind of start that many prognosticators expected.
So what better race to make a big splash than Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway?
In addition to being the race’s title sponsor, Toyota stands an above average shot of ending up in Victory Lane — at least if history means anything.
Prior to going 0-for-2 last season, Toyota drivers had won seven of the past eight Sprint Cup races at the Virginia short track, with Kyle Busch (4 wins), Denny Hamlin (2 wins) and Clint Bowyer (1 win in a Toyota) all getting a piece of the glory.
Any of those drivers, along with Matt Kenseth — Hamlin and Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate — could help Toyota reclaim the Richmond winner’s mantle on Saturday night.
"I love Richmond — it’s one of my favorite racetracks and one of my best racetracks," said Busch, who captured four consecutive spring race victories at RIR from 2009-2012. "I love being able to go there and, of course, we put on some pretty good races there.
"We won four spring races in a row and I would have loved to have made it five last year. It’s a neat racetrack and it’s certainly an exciting track and there is a lot of action that happens under the lights on Saturday night there."
While Busch — who claimed Toyota’s lone win of 2014 last month at Auto Club Speedway — covets a return to Richmond’s Victory Lane, rest assured that no driver wants to be there as much as teammate Hamlin.
A native of nearby Chesterfield, Va., Hamlin grew up attending races at RIR and considers the three-quarter-mile oval his home track in every way. Hamlin won here in the fall of 2009 and the fall of 2010 but has left Richmond empty-handed in his last five trips to the D-shaped facility.
Hamlin missed last spring’s race at Richmond while out of action recovering from a back injury suffered a few weeks earlier at Auto Club Speedway.
"Obviously, any time we race in Richmond, I want to run well in front of friends and family," said Hamlin, who cut his teeth racing Late Models on Virginia’s short tracks. "It’s been a good track for our FedEx team, and I had to miss the race there last spring.
"We haven’t finished where we have run for the most part in the last few races this year, but Richmond is a great place to get back on track."
"I really enjoy getting to race Saturday night at a short track like Richmond because it reminds me of growing up and racing Friday and Saturday nights back in Wisconsin," said Kenseth, who started first and led 140 laps en route to a seventh-place finish in the 2013 spring race.
"We were fortunate enough to earn the pole for last year’s race, and JGR has had pretty strong cars there in the past, so I’m looking forward to getting back there this weekend."
Bowyer notched his first RIR triumph in a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet in May 2008 and delivered Toyota’s most recent Richmond win in September 2012 while driving for his present team, Michael Waltrip Racing.
"Richmond is one of my favorite racetracks," Bowyer said. "It’s one of those racetracks that we’ve always run well at. I’ve won in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series and it’s a track that I always look forward to going to. I love night races, but I don’t like the night schedules because there is nothing to do all day. I want to race and hate the waiting."