Toyota savors first NASCAR driver’s championship – SB Nation

Posted: Thursday, December 03, 2015

There were emotional heartfelt hugs, pervasive jubilation featuring smiles that could not be displaced under almost any circumstance, good-natured jokes at their rival’s expense, champagne toasts and in one instance, even a complete dousing.

This celebration, however, was not taking place on stage where Kyle Busch was reveling in having just won a career-first championship. Instead, just offstage to where Busch stood, an assembly of Toyota executives rejoiced in an accomplishment many wondered if it would ever occur. For the first time since entering NASCAR’s top division in 2007, the carmaker had finally seen one of its drivers capture the Sprint Cup trophy.

“It isn’t, but this right here is 9-year-old champagne,” one Toyota executive said, referencing the bubbly he was sipping out of a plastic glass. “I’m damn near crying. You can’t fathom what this means.”

Like the driver who finally delivered it a Cup Series title, Toyota had long been expected to ascend to the top of the NASCAR hierarchy far sooner. Yet despite investing significant capital and overcoming numerous initial setbacks — that included an abundance of its cars failing to qualify for races during its maiden 2007 campaign — the Japanese-based manufacturer eventually advanced to the point where it regularly contended for race wins — though continually falling short of the top prize.

Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin, went into the 2010 finale holding the points lead only to blunder and hand the title to Jimmie Johnson. Three years later Matt Kenseth, another JGR driver, won a series-best seven times, but he too stumbled down the stretch and again, Johnson prevailed.

That Johnson is with Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet’s flagship organization, only added to the feelings of angst, which intensified when Hamlin reached the decisive round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff last season, but finished third among the four finalists. The winner was Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing, which gave Chevrolet its ninth driver championship in the past 10 years.

“It’s tough and it’s been a struggle at times,” Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson told SB Nation in September. “But this is the most competitive form of racing in the world and it’s not supposed to easy. That’s the challenge, but it also makes the reward worth it.”

To counter Chevrolet and the tight technical alliance between Hendrick and SHR, which operates as a de facto eight-car super team, Toyota encouraged then financially supported JGR’s expansion efforts. The addition of Carl Edwards to a lineup that included Busch, Hamlin and Kenseth gave Toyota four championship-caliber drivers.

And although the first few months were uneven, by June the array of talent assembled began producing as expected. Kenseth recorded four victories during the regular season, Busch, who missed 11 races recuperating from a broken right leg and left foot, returned to grab four wins in a five-race stretch, Edwards visited victory lane twice, and Hamlin once.

If ever a Toyota title seemed possible, it was this season. And while preposterous to think all four could advance to the championship round, there stood a reasonable shot that among Kenseth, Busch, Edwards and Hamlin, more than one stood a good chance of qualifying.

Except a malfunctioning roof flap caused Hamlin’s demise in the second Chase round. Kenseth’s bid also came undone in the same bracket, though via far more controversial means. And a scant five-point margin deficit led to Edwards’ Round 3 exit.

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Left alone to carry the Toyota banner against three Chevrolet teams, Busch came through Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That the two biggest challengers he vanquished were Harvick and Hendrick’s Jeff Gordon only added to the magnitude.

Finally, Busch had his first championship and delivered Toyota its first, as well.

“This is our biggest singular motorsports success on a global basis by far,” Wilson told SB Nation as he watched Busch celebrate. “This is the biggest thing we’ve achieved.

“It’s so hard to win races, let alone a championship. This is our ninth year and it’s been a lot of trials along the way. But here we are; it’s a surreal feeling.”

Busch will be coronated formally in the annual year end awards banquet Friday in Las Vegas. As for Toyota, the auto giant is steadfast in its commitment to NASCAR and is bolstering its roster to gear up for a run at the manufacturer’s championship that Chevrolet has had a stranglehold on since 2003.

Joining the Toyota ranks next season is Furniture Row Racing, which will enter into a technical alliance with JGR similar to the relationship Hendrick and SHR share. Because Furniture Row fields just a single car for Martin Truex Jr., who raced Busch, Harvick and Gordon for the title at Homestead, and is below the NASCAR imposed four-team cap, it could add additional entries if sponsorship is procured.

The goal is for Furniture Row to expand gradually and for the Denver, Colorado-based organization and JGR to form a cohesive partnership that would give Toyota eight high-level teams allowing it to combat Chevrolet on more equal footing.

“Now that we’ve won the driver’s championship, winning the manufacturer’s championship is the next goal,” Wilson said. “But as we know firsthand, these things aren’t easy. But if we’ve proven anything, it’s that you can’t question our dedication.”


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