David Wilson loves reunion stories.
Wilson (pictured above), the president of Toyota Racing Development, has had a few over the years, and he’s just as eager for the one coming next season. Legacy Motor Club and Toyota announced earlier this week that they will pair together in 2024 in the NASCAR Cup Series, bringing Erik Jones and Noah Gragson back under the Toyota banner.
Jones climbed — and won — his way through the NASCAR ladder driving a Toyota. Signed to the Toyota development pipeline as a teenager, Jones has won in a Toyota in the Craftsman Truck Series, Xfinity Series and Cup Series. He is also a former Cup Series Rookie of the Year.
“Erik Jones is a very special person to Toyota, and his mother Carol and his sister,” Wilson said. “We bonded over those years together.”
Jones and Gragson are just as enthusiastic as Wilson about the future.
When his tenure with Toyota ended after the 2020 season at Joe Gibbs Racing, Jones said he never had any animosity toward Toyota or Gibbs, understanding it was a business decision. Jones has driven a Chevrolet for the last three seasons with the No. 43 team.
“When I initially heard of the opportunity earlier this year to maybe come back to Toyota, I was excited about it because it gave a path forward,” Jones said. “I felt like we were reaching our limitations where we were and what we could do for the future, and I have a lot of unmet goals in the Cup Series at this point. So, for me, Toyota gave a path to meet those goals, so I was more than happy to welcome that news and come back in.”
Because he’s quite familiar with the Toyota system, Jones doesn’t feel there will be much change for him next season. Jones looks forward to working with many of the same people he’s known for quite some time.
“I already know Toyota’s commitment and how things work and how things run, and it makes me excited as a driver going in knowing some of the resources that we’re going to have going forward to continue building the program.
‘It’s been fun for me with the 43 car, and I’ve seen enough change in three years. I think we’re ready to settle in and really start to build the program that we want to see.”
Resources are what Gragson is also most looking forward to — not just on the racetrack but off it with the Toyota performance center. When Gragson was in the Toyota pipeline that program was still relevantly young, but now, it’s one of the most important tools Toyota drivers use for training, nutrition and more.
“I’m excited,” Gragson said. “The main thing to me is when I came over here midseason last year and met with Maury [Gallagher] and Mike Beam, they told me, ‘We want to do this and we want to do it right and we want to do it quick.’ You hear that from time to time, but these guys are involved, and they’re making moves, and they’re making stuff happen.
“Seeing Maury’s vision to bring Jimmie [Johnson] in and the steps they’ve been putting into place so far in a short time has been really exciting to see. This is another step of the journey, and I’m excited to be a part of it. I’m excited to get back in a Toyota. I know a little bit — I was in the KBM stable with Toyota in the Truck Series, so I might not know the full extent of what it’s like in the Cup Series, but I know that Toyota truly is a family.”
Jones drove a Toyota in all three series from 2013 through 2020, winning 18 races across the three national series for Kyle Busch Motorsports and Joe Gibbs. Gragson drove a Toyota truck for Busch from 2016 through 2018 and also made three Xfinity Series starts in a Gibbs Toyota in 2018. Gragson has two wins driving a Toyota.
However, a lot of Gragson’s success in recent years had come while driving a Chevrolet when he moved to JR Motorsports. Gragson also understood there was no fit for him to stay in a Toyota and the timing wasn’t right. But he maintained his relationship with those at Toyota through text messages and conversations.
Wilson described Gragson as a tremendous character and great for the sport.
“He is a talent,” said Wilson. “I love the personality, but he can wheel a race car, and that’s what I love even more. We look forward to getting them back behind the wheel of Toyotas next year.”
Both drivers will return to the Toyota camp with more experience. Jones said he feels more well-rounded nowadays and has learned more in the last three years than in the previous years.
“I felt like, as a young guy coming into Cup, I didn’t always know how to take advantage of everything and the resources that were available to me,” said Jones. “Going through these years now and learning as a person and a driver, I think the resources will be taken much more advantage of on my end. So, I’m excited about that.”
Gragson’s career as a Cup Series driver is still young, but he continues to be surrounded by the best people and, next season, with somewhat familiar equipment. Gragson will be a sophomore in the Cup Series next season as Jones goes into his seventh full season.
“I wouldn’t say I forecast that both or either Erik or Noah would be driving a Toyota again. What I knew in my heart is given the opportunity and the circumstance to drive a Toyota again that they would be happy,” Wilson said. “Again, this comes back to what I think is most important in our driver development program, and that is we take a tremendous personal responsibility in those relationships and the fact that we have some influence on them. We take that very seriously, and in the course of that, you develop relationships.
“I subscribe to karma, if you will, in that good things happen with that. You have to be careful in this garage because, in the end, it’s a pretty small garage. This is a feel-good story from my perspective, from Toyota’s perspective, to have two tremendous people back in the family.”