31 Moments: No. 17 -- Toyota struggles to find the power of Chevy or Ford

BY Tom Jensen • December 15, 2014

Editor's note: For the month of December, FOXSports.com will count down 31 moments that defined the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. This is No. 17.

It is a given that whenever NASCAR makes a significant rules change, some teams and manufacturers adapt better to it than others do.

And with competition at an all-time high in NASCAR, one of the most surprising outcomes in 2014 was the struggles suffered by Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, the flagship teams for Toyota and its American racing arm, TRD, U.S.A.

In 2013, JGR won 12 races and MWR took two more.

This season, JGR won two races -- Auto Club Speedway in March and Talladega Superspeedway in May -- while MWR was shut out of Victory Lane entirely. While the Toyota teams struggled some with the new no-minimum-ride-height rule for 2014, the big challenge came under the hood, as for most of the season, the Toyotas just didn't have the speed of the top Chevrolet and Ford teams.

At the Pure Michigan 400, JGR driver Denny Hamlin complained that the Toyotas were way down on horsepower compared to the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets.

"We're trying to make the best we can do, down 50 horsepower. We can't just accelerate down the straightaway like them," said Hamlin of the powerhouse Hendrick engines.

The following week, the man responsible for the engines that go in all of the JGR Toyotas said that Toyota is working hard to play catch-up, but that its performance deficit was nowhere near the 50 horsepower Hamlin referenced.

"We appreciate the passion that all of our drivers have," said David Wilson, president and general manager of TRD, U.S.A., Toyota's racing division.

In an exclusive interview with FOXSports.com, Wilson said he understood Hamlin's frustration in the middle of the season.

"These guys are so competitive," Wilson said of the drivers. "They hate to lose. And the reality is, we have not had the season we expected. We've fallen short and I've taken full responsibility with respect to one of those components, and that being the engine performance."

TRD's facility in Costa Mesa, California, builds the engines used in the JGR and MWR Toyotas, among others.

Wilson said TRD has greatly improved engine durability from 2013. "We're delighted with our reliability this year," he said. "If you look at where we were last year, we had great performance, but we were inconsistent. We've got great reliability and we have to pour on the coals and we are pouring on the coals in terms of horsepower."

By the time the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rolled around, all three JGR drivers made it into the playoff round, and by all accounts the horsepower gap was narrowed significantly. Hamlin made it all the way to the final round of the Chase and finished an excellent third in points.

Still, Toyota ended the season on a 26-race winless streak and will be looking to end that as soon as possible in 2015.

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