The automaker has backed multiple teams since becoming a part of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2007. But since joining the Toyota camp in 2008, Joe Gibbs Racing has clearly been the lead horse in the draft. JGR driver Kyle Busch gave Toyota its first Cup win on March 9, 2008, at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and the team has been a consistent race winner and title contender ever since.
Now, however, there is a new challenger in the mix.
|Truex is Toyota's top driver in 2012...|
Michael Waltrip Racing has raised the competitive bar this season, with drivers Martin Truex, Jr., Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin, Michael Waltrip and Brian Vickers combining for six Top-5 and 13 Top-10 finishes in 24 combined starts.
Truex has led the MWR charge, surging to second in championship points with an impressive runner-up performance at Kansas Speedway Sunday that saw him dominate the event before falling victim to a balky set of tires on his final pit stop. Bowyer and Martin also have Top-5 finishes to their credit this season, and appeared en route to another solid day at Kansas before being sidelined by engine issues. Vickers finished fifth in his lone MWR start this season, at Bristol in early March.
Joe Gibbs Racing, meanwhile, appears to have pinned its 2012 hopes on a resurgent Denny Hamlin. The Virginia driver won his second race of the season Sunday in Kansas, turning back a late-race charge by Truex to claim the checkered flag. Hamlin has already recorded three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes, and is fifth in championship points as NASCAR’s regular season hits the one-third pole.
Unfortunately for JGR, Hamlin’s teammates have struggled mightily by comparison.
|...but Hamlin has the wins.|
Joey Logano got off to a solid start, recording Top-10 finishes – ninth and tenth – in the opening races at Daytona and Phoenix. Since then, however, the Connecticut native has plummeted to 12th in championship points with consecutive showings of 16th, 16th, 24th, 23rd and 19th. Logano and sponsor Home Depot are both in the final year of their respective contracts, and after finishing no better than 16th in his three Sprint Cup seasons to date, the pressure is on Logano to improve dramatically this season, or lose his job.
“You try to block it out,” admitted Logano at Daytona in February. “You try to not think about it, but when you turn on the TV and all you see is them talking about you – saying you’re out or you’re in or… whatever it is – you start to think, ‘Huh, I wonder if that’s true.’”
Like Logano, Kyle Busch is off to a rocky start this season. He has just three Top-10 finishes – along with two finishes of 30th or worse -- highlighted by a runner-up showing at Auto Club Speedway last month. A quiet 11th in Kansas Sunday leaves Busch 13th in championship points, as rumors of mutual unhappiness continue to swirl around him and his sponsor, M&Ms.
JGR president J.D. Gibbs revealed Sunday that the team is close to signing a long-term contract extension with Toyota, quashing rumors that the team could jump to the Dodge camp in 2013. Gibbs is expected to be in attendance when Toyota unveils its 2013 Sprint Cup Camry at Toyota Racing Development headquarters in Salisbury, NC on May 22, and told ESPN, "We're working (on a contract and) we'll be with Toyota for a long time to come."
While MWR has clearly closed the gap on Joe Gibbs Racing – or even overtaken its more veteran Toyota stable mate -- both operations have a nagging performance issue that must be addressed in the coming weeks.
The new JGR/TRD engine alliance is off to a halting start, with mechanical failures sidelining a number of Toyota entries in both Sprint Cup and Nationwide competition. In addition to Bowyer and Martin’s blown engines Sunday, Toyota driver Bobby Labonte saw his powerplant go up in flames during an early race pit stop. Nationwide drivers Jason Leffler, Kenny Wallace and Ryan Truex have also experienced engine-related DNFs already this season, clear evidence that Toyota has yet to fully stabilize its engine-building effort.