Despite four NASCAR Cup Series wins on the season, two of which have come in the last week, Toyota Racing president David Wilson said the manufacturer is “on our back foot a little bit.”
A week ago, Toyota celebrated a Martin Truex Jr. victory at Martinsville Speedway, which was backed up by Denny Hamlin’s win at Homestead. The results came despite Hamlin believing that the new Chevrolet Camaro is ultimately a faster car.
“It’s not that we’ve fallen behind as much as [Chevrolet has] caught up, and there’s no question that new Chevrolet Camaro and the nose that’s on that car has elevated their program,” said Wilson. “The fact that they’re only sitting on two wins right now is shocking to me. I always look at, not necessarily just the wins, but the potential. What is the true potential of your race cars? And that being raw speed. I think you could argue that we’re punching above our weight right now, and they’re not running at their full potential.
“Our general feeling is, despite coming off two wins, we’re on our back foot a little bit. In many respects, I feel much better about our loss at Atlanta than our win in Martinsville, as counter-intuitive as that sounds.”
Three Toyota drivers finished in the top five at Atlanta, and Busch led the second-most laps that day. However Wilson prioritizes having cars good enough to win on outright pace, and that did not happen in Martinsville, where the Toyota teams struggled from the drop of the green flag. Although Truex won, he did so with a hard-fought rebound while Busch, Erik Jones, and Hamlin finished 19th or worse and off the lead lap.
“In Martinsville, we embarrassed ourselves,” said Wilson. “(That) is one of the most embarrassing races I can remember for the Toyota family. We weren’t ready for the new tire that Goodyear brought to the racetrack, and there are circumstances around it, but I’m not going to make excuses. We weren’t prepared for it.
“Our engine-drivability was terrible in pit lane, on restarts, and we could have had our worst finish since 2007 had it not been for Martin hanging on long enough to get the car balanced correctly for the tires and putting himself in the position to ultimately win the race. But I was encouraged at what we saw at Homestead.
“Where we need to be better is our consistency and how we unload off the haulers across the camp. We have had too many guys that are just dog crap for the first stage and use that time to try to catch up, and that’s unacceptable. We should be better. With the tools that we have, with the experience we have, we should be better, and so there’s definitely room for improvement. Having said all that, within our camp, within the JGR camp, we’re still positive because we know that our potential is there to lead laps and win races if we execute consistently on pit lane, if we do a better job with our sim, we will be in a position to win more races… As cliche as it sounds, it’s not the first 12 races; it’s the last 12 races.”
Had it not been for Toyota’s record of 19 wins in 2019 and week-to-week dominance against the competition, its four wins in the first 12 races wouldn’t attract so much scrutiny. Toyota does have three drivers in the top 10 in points, but those four wins have come from two drivers. Only Truex has bucketed over 100 stage points, and Busch has led the second-fewest laps of drivers in the top 10 in points. The key to fixing that, says Wilson, is better execution across the board.
“Within the pit crews, there’s been a little bit of movement and tweaking on the pit crews that I think we’re seeing some good success from,” he said. “I think the car builds themselves are getting better. We’re catching up; we’re closing the gap in terms of the raw speed. If I had to say one specific thing over another, it’s having cars that unload and take that first stage much better, and we saw that at Atlanta, for the most part, and so we’re making some headway there.
“Again, like everyone else, it’s turning all the knobs. The amplitude of knobs we’re turning this week is a lot smaller than three weeks ago, which simply means we feel like we’re closing the gap, and now if we can execute collectively, we can start leading more laps consistently and having more of the Toyota drivers running in the top 10, and putting themselves in position in the last stage to fight for a win.”