For the first time this year, Toyota placed all six of its cars inside the top 10 at Kansas Speedway and solidified TRD president David Wilson’s belief the manufacturer has found something at the intermediate tracks.
Kurt Busch won the race for 23XI Racing. Third, fourth, fifth and sixth were Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, pole-sitter Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr. Bubba Wallace completed the roll call in 10th place. Sunday capped off a three-week stretch (Dover, Darlington, Kansas) where the speed was there for Toyota teams, but not necessarily the results.
“You look at Las Vegas, Darlington, Kansas, Dover and OK, (Dover) is not an intermediate (so much) as an in-betweener, but those were tracks we showed up and had some great speed right off the bat,” Wilson said. “We’ve struggled at a couple of the short tracks, most notably Phoenix and Martinsville. We think we’ve made some headway in those areas, but certainly, our strong suit has been the bigger tracks.
“We’re very, very happy with our performance on track at the intermediates. And we expect to continue to show this coming weekend at the All-Star Race.”
However, Wilson is a straight shooter when it comes to Toyota teams. Winning is great, but Wilson is the first to admit when more needs to be done.
“We’re sitting on three wins in 13 starts versus how many does Chevrolet have?” Wilson said. “They have more than we do. A lot more. So that’s what gets the headlines – Toyota has only won three times in 13 races, and that’s true and that’s unacceptable.”
Those three wins came courtesy of Hamlin at Richmond, Kyle Busch on the Bristol dirt, and Kurt Busch Sunday at Kansas.
“Our performance – other than a couple of data points like Phoenix, Martinsville, COTA, we weren’t great – but we’ve definitely narrowed the gap,” Wilson continued. “You look at what we saw at Kansas, and you look at guys like Kyle Larson, who is just a sick talent. It just doesn’t matter where his teammates are running, Kyle Larson kind of stands above, and everybody’s racing Kyle Larson every weekend.
“But we do have work to do, and the area right now we’re focused more so than anywhere else is execution in pit lane. That has been a difference-maker. What’s truly been amazing is the fact that we had six cars finish in the top 10 with as many mistakes as were made in pit lane.”
Hamlin started in the rear and then had to go to the back twice because of pit road mistakes. The No. 11 team was called twice for equipment interference (when something, usually a rogue tire, interferes with another team’s pit stop). Wallace, who was running fifth, had an uncontrolled tire on his last pit stop that sent him to the rear.
“He was going to finish top three, I’m convinced,” Wilson said of Wallace. “And he had to restart 18th because he had a ridiculous pit stop, and in spite of all of that, we had the speed to drive back to the front.”
Two weeks ago, Hamlin had an impressive drive at Dover coming from the back after a wheel fell off on a pit stop. Hamlin drove back to fourth before being collected in an accident.
“It’s not for lack of speed, but we all know, no cliche whatsoever, this is a team sport,” said Wilson. “In order to win, you have to execute not just behind the seat, but underneath the hood and on pit lane. It takes a team, and so this has been one of the absolute strengths of Joe Gibbs Racing, historically. And for [Joe] Gibbs and I to spend as much time as we have been the past few weeks talking about this is indicative of how we collectively hold ourselves accountable, and we need to fix that.
“The other data point where I’ll feel more comfortable is on the short tracks and getting to a couple more to see where our program is.”
One area that needs to be better is simulation. NASCAR Cup Series teams still don’t have much time on track to tune or correct their setups, with only 20 minutes of practice most weekends. Toyota drivers Truex and Hamlin have admitted teams are ‘sim racing’, and Wilson admitted that their simulator needs to get better at adapting to the Next Gen car.
“No, I’m not comfortable (with it),” Wilson said. “Simulation is so critical; it remains so critical in helping our teams unload and deal with the fact that we have a warmup and then qualifying. That’s not fair to call it a practice, and this is an area where we haven’t been on top of our game, and through a number of circumstances that are neither here nor there but like a lot of other things, we’re starting to figure some things out.
“Most people don’t fully appreciate what a simulator is, and it’s a product of many, many tools. A simulator is only as good as those tools that feed it and the models that feed simulation and software. We have more software engineers today than I think we have engine engineers. That might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one. Again, this speaks to how important tools and software are. It’s all knitted together. We’re still on it. We still have work to do.”