Toyota Racing Development

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Veteran NASCAR crew chief Slugger Labbe takes new role with Toyota Racing Development

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Veteran NASCAR crew chief and current NASCAR America analyst Slugger Labbe has a new job.

Labbe announced on this morning’s The Morning Drive on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he has joined Toyota Racing and Toyota Racing Development as Manager of Teams and Vehicles Support.

Labbe’s duties will be stretch across all forms of Toyota’s racing involvement including NASCAR, NHRA drag racing, NASCAR K&N Pro Series, USAC, Rally Series and several other series.

“It’s going to be a challenge for me, working for an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) after being in NASCAR for 32 years,” Labbe said. “But working with the various racing divisions of Toyota Motorsports through TRD is a very exciting challenge for me and I’m looking forward to it.”

Labbe’s duties will include technical support to Toyota teams across all the various motorsports series it supports.

“I’ll be a manager of some of that direction as for what the teams specifically need,” Labbe said.

Labbe won’t have to travel far for his first assignment: the suburban Charlotte resident will be at this weekend’s NHRA event at zMax Dragway, across from Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I get to do something completely different than NASCAR to start this weekend and I’m looking forward to that challenge,” Labbe said. “It’s going to be a pretty cool opportunity for me.”

Labbe left Richard Childress Racing as crew chief for the No. 3 NASCAR Cup Chevrolet driven by Austin Dillon on May 22.

Labbe’s departure led to a shuffle of crew chiefs within its Cup and Xfinity teams that saw Justin Alexander replace Labbe and Randall Burnett took over as crew chief for the No. 2 Xfinity Series Chevrolet.

Labbe had been a Cup crew chief with RCR since 2010. He initially worked with Paul Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 with Labbe as crew chief. He had been with Dillon since midway through the 2015 season.

In 500 starts as a Cup crew chief, Labbe has five victories, also winning three times with Michael Waltrip and once with Jeremy Mayfield.

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Toyota executive: Low downforce, not new car bodies, root of early season problems

(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images
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A Toyota Racing Development executive says the manufacturer “not sweating the numbers in terms of wins” after 11 races in the NASCAR Cup season.

David Wilson, president of TRD, also said NASCAR’s new low downforce package is more to blame for the lack of wins than Toyota’s new Camry bodies, which debuted a new nose design this season.

“Overall, we’re pleased with its performance,” Wilson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Tradin’ Paint. “I know when we came out of the gate a little slower than normal, human nature is you point to what’s different. ‘Well, they’ve got that new Camry.’ Honestly guys, that’s really not been the biggest contributor. I think adjusting to the lower downforce stuff; our aero program the past couple of years has been so strong and the amount of work we put into more downforce, more downforce, more downforce.”

Through 11 races, Toyota has two Cup wins, both coming with Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and last Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

Toyota’s flagship team, Joe Gibbs Racing, hasn’t visited victory lane since last fall’s race at Texas Motor Speedway with Carl Edwards.

While Truex leads the series in stage wins with five, Joe Gibbs Racing only has four combined stage wins among its four drivers.

Also, all four drivers — Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez — have combined for just seven top fives.

Wilson’s observation of the impact of the lower downforce package goes back to last season when the series tested a variation of this years’ lower downforce package in both Michigan races and at Kentucky Speedway.

In those races, JGR only recorded one top five (Carl Edwards, Kentucky) and four top 10s. Truex added a fifth for Furniture Row Racing. The Gibbs’ teams earned 46 top fives in all of 2016.

“When NASCAR cuts a thousand pounds or so off (the car), it kinds of eats into our competitive margin we spent so much time and energy building up,” Wilson said. “We’re working on a number of things. Mechanical grip, we need our cars to turn through the center of the corners a little bit better and just aero, not just downforce.”

Hamlin said two weeks ago at Richmond International Raceway that it would take more than a month for Joe Gibbs Racing’s problems to fixed.

“Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better,” Hamlin said.

With the next points race a week away, there are only two Toyota teams in the top 10 in points. Truex is second, 44 points behind Kyle Larson. Busch is seventh, 150 points back. Denny Hamlin the next highest Toyota driver in 12th.

“We tend to get a little frustrated because we set the bar so high,” Wilson said. “Coming off the past two seasons, we have good cause to set that bar pretty high as we ran pretty darn well.

“What we have to keep in perspective, we’re leading a lot of laps. It’s one thing if we’re not bringing the wins home at the end of the day when we’re not leading laps. It’s another when we’re leading a lot of laps, we’e just not closing. We fall victim to whether it’s a pit miscue or just bad luck. We’re not sweating the numbers in terms of wins. We’ve won as many stages as any manufacturer. Just not enough of the third stage.”

The top Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing – which are part of a technical alliance – have led 1, 367 laps. Truex (536) and Busch (521) lead the series.

“On the whole, we feel pretty good about where we are,” said of the Toyota program at the All-Star break. “This next stretch, we said to ourselves before Kansas, this is a very important part of the season because we’re going to hit these tracks where we’re going to come back during the playoffs.

“So Kansas, Charlotte, Dover and that’s going to be obviously important that we do well and are able to keep our performance high, because those are going to be somewhat predictive of our playoff performance.”

The Charlotte and Dover races have swapped spots on the schedule. Last year, Truex dominated and won the Coke 600 and Kenseth then won at Dover. Toyota didn’t visit victory lane again until New Hampshire with Kenseth, six races after Charlotte.

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Toyota unveils new Camry for NASCAR

Michael L. Levitt
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DETROIT – The “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” mantra won’t hold true immediately with Toyota’s latest entry in NASCAR.

Oh, the redesigned Camry – with a distinctive front end and aggressive stylings for a typically conservative automaker – might have its sales numbers goosed by strong results on the track.

But if a Toyota takes the checkered flag next month at Daytona International Speedway, it’ll be several months before fans can invest their loyalty in their showroom.

That’s because it’ll be a 2018 Camry that will be competing in the 2017 Daytona 500.

22-23 November, 2016, Anaheim, California, USA ©2016, Michael L. Levitt
A look at the 2018 Toyota Camry and the Camry model that will be run in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season. Photo: 
©2016, Michael L. Levitt

In a Monday afternoon announcement at the North American International Auto Show (where more than 5,000 journalists were credentialed for this week’s event), Toyota revealed an overhauled Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race car in conjunction with the unveil of its production counterpart that will make a debut in late summer.

Ed Laukes, vice president of integrated marketing for Toyota Motor Sales, said the car’s design was the impetus for the unprecedented move of bringing it to track ahead of market (it likely will be available to the public in August).

“As soon as they unveiled the drawings (of the 2018 car) to us, we looked and said, ‘This is such a radical design, that we really need to figure out a way to get it on the racetrack as soon as possible,’ ” Laukes said. “Rather than wait until the year after it went on sale.”

Camry chief designer Masato Katsumata was involved in helping approve the race car design along with engineers from Calty Design Research, Inc. (Toyota’s North American design studio) and Toyota Racing Development. Calty (Newport Beach) and TRD (Costa Mesa) are headquartered in neighboring cities in Southern California.

The development of the 2018 model started two years ago as TRD rolled out an update of the Gen 6 Camry that made its debut in 2013 and won 16 of 36 Cup points races last year.

David Wilson, TRD president and general manager, said the new Camry was tested last June with NASCAR and representatives of Ford and General Motors, but Monday’s announcement mostly had been kept under wraps during the building process.

To preserve the secrecy of the project, Toyota had its NASCAR team members sign non-disclosure agreements. Last September, Joe Gibbs Racing installed new windows in its fan viewing area to obscure the work done with the new car on the shop floor of its Huntersville, N.C., headquarters.

Wilson said Toyota involved its teams more heavily in the car’s aerodynamic development.

“We had them work with us side by side as we’re designing this because they’ve got very, very smart aerodynamicists,” Wilson said. “So the intent is to hit the ground running at Daytona with being further along than the past two generations” of the Gen 6 car.

22-23 November, 2016, Anaheim, California, USA ©2016, Michael L. Levitt
The new Toyota Camry that will be run this season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Photo:
©2016, Michael L. Levitt

Wilson said NASCAR sets limits on the advances made with increasing downforce while lowering drag but “every time a manufacturer has a shot at building a new car and evolving a new car, you try to work closer and closer to the corner of the lowest drag and highest downforce.”

Said Laukes: “Everyone operates within the box on downforce and drag, and as long as you’re operating in that box, it passes the test. So there are always minor tweaks that everyone is doing as far as sheet metal, but it’s still going to operate within that NASCAR-approved box of downforce and drag. I think we’re always looking to try to make things better, but you can’t get radical, because then you’re outside the rules.”

The Camry will make its competitive debut Feb. 18 in The Clash at Daytona exhibition race. There will be no preseason testing at the track for the new model, but Wilson said the high fidelity of computer simulations would mitigate the lack of real-world experience.

“The tools that each of us have available now, you know what (the car) should do,” Wilson said. “There’s a tangible ‘We want to get it on the track’ feeling, but it’s not necessary.”

Laukes said the next step for Toyota in NASCAR car development would be a new model for the Xfinity Series. While Ford (Mustang) and Chevrolet (Camaro) use different models in the second-tier circuit than in Cup, Toyota campaigns a Camry.

“The current Xfinity car will live on at least a year, probably two within Xfinity,” Laukes said. “Then we’ll redesign or talk about some other future model to unveil in that time.”

The Camry has been the No. 1-selling vehicle in the country for 15 consecutive years (more than 400,000 sold last year), but Laukes said consumers overwhelmingly are moving toward trucks and SUVs away from mid- and luxury sedans.

“Things like this hopefully will stop the bleeding of people making that transition from a four-door sedan to an SUV,” Laukes said.

It’s the second straight year that a manufacturer has introduced an update to its Cup Series model. Ford updated its Fusion model last year.

Carl Edwards: Dominance by Truex will lead to JGR teams stepping up

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FRISCO, TEXAS – The balance of power has shifted at Joe Gibbs Racing.

It’s a shift that’s hard to ignore. Especially when all five JGR-related teams remain alive in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins its second round this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Through the season’s first 20 races, JGR and Furniture Row Racing won 10 races, with the majority going to Kyle Busch (four) while Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards each claimed two.

In the nine races since Busch’s win at Indianapolis in July, all three of those drivers have gone winless. Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. have won five races – Truex winning three of the last five. Truex and Furniture Row Racing are enjoying previously unreached levels of success for both driver and team in their first year of racing with Toyota power.

“There’s two sides to it,” said Carl Edwards on Wednesday at a media event in North Texas. “We look at the 78 team and say ‘Man, how are they doing this?’ They’re just so fast, they’re doing such a good job. That is frustrating. It makes me think, ‘Am I doing a good enough job?’ and I know everybody at the shop is thinking ‘Are we doing a good enough job? What’s going on?'”

That’s where the other side of Edwards’ point comes in.

“That’s motivation,” Edwards says. “There’s nothing better for the guys at JGR and myself than to see somebody out there doing something because we know we can do it that well too.”

But Edwards and his other JGR compatriots haven’t been doing that well since July. Edwards hasn’t finished in the top five since he was a runner-up to Brad Keselowski at Kentucky. He has only one top 10 in the last five races. Both Kenseth and Busch have two top fives in the last two races after going seven races without any.

Then there’s Truex and Furniture Row Racing, taming the field and his teammates in their first year with Toyota and the support of JGR.

“Right now, we need to and we’re able to rise to the occasion,” Edwards said. “I think you’re going to see four teams, the JGR teams, really step it up the next few weeks and it will be in large part because of how well the 78 is running.”

Edwards joined JGR in 2015 after more than a decade competing for Roush Fenway Racing and Ford in all three of NASCAR’s national series. He describes Furniture Row Racing as a “very nimble team” after how it’s handled its transition from Chevrolet to Toyota.

“Being a single-car team, the transition is probably much easier than it would be for say a larger organization,” Edwards said of the Denver-based program that will grow to a two-car team in 2017 with the addition of Erik Jones driving the No. 77.

“I guess Furniture Row’s transition is probably similar to mine in that when I came over here it was really eye-opening how much Toyota’s involved and how much effort they put in, how much they truly care,” Edwards said. “It’s a partnership. They don’t just write a check to the team. All of the tools they have and the way they have information. I sit next to 750-horsepower engines built by (Toyota Racing Development) every week. They’re integral in the team. I think that makes the transition easier when you come to Toyota.”

Upon Further Review: Bristol Night Race

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — On one pit stop, a socket came off and slowed Kevin Harvick’s crew. Then came the stop where he fell from first to third because of slow work with a tire.

Just under 200 laps remained in Sunday night’s Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway and Harvick’s team was finding ways to beat itself again. For the past three years, this team has been one of the sport’s fastest but has lost several chances at wins because of mechanical maladies, pit stop problems or miscues on track.

Sunday night, crew chief Rodney Childers stepped down from the pit box after the latest issue. On the way to a restroom, he collected his thoughts. When he returned to the pit box, he gathered his team.

“Being mad and taking it out on your guys isn’t the right way,’’ Childers told NBC Sports. “I see people do it all the time.’’

Instead, he delivered a different message.

“They were kind of beating themselves up as the night went and it was kind of getting worse and worse every stop,’’ Childers said. “We had a good talk and you could tell in their eyes, they were relieved after I talked to them and told them you’ve got to believe in yourself and if you believe in yourself, we can win this thing.’’

They responded and helped Harvick win his second race of the season.

It’s that type of mentality Harvick said his team needs to have as it moves closer to the playoffs. While many view the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing as the key obstacles to the championship, Harvick isn’t focused on them. He’s focused on his team.

“I feel like if we do everything right, we can be the rabbit,’’ Harvick  told NBC Sports. “We’ve just made some mistakes. We’ve had some things go wrong. We’ve had some miscues. I feel like we’ve fixed pit road. I feel like we’ve overcome a lot of the mistakes. We’ve had a lot of bad luck. There’s just a lot of things that haven’t gone in our particular direction this year, but I feel like the speed of the race cars has been good.’’

“As a whole, I want our team to focus on ourselves. I don’t want them to worry about how fast this guy is running. I don’t want them to worry about how fast that guy is running. I want them to worry about how fast we’re running and how thorough can we be from top to bottom and front to back on that race car and in the preparation from what we do as race drivers to engineers to crew chiefs, and let’s get the most out of our weekend because I believe that will be competitive and have a chance to and be where we need to be when we get to Homestead.’’

WELL NOT DRY FOR TOYOTA

Toyota Racing Development’s president admits that he’s “disappointed” to lose William Byron to Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports next season, but the manufacturer’s well of talent remains deep.

Byron, who leads the points and has won five of the 13 Camping World Truck Series races this season, will drive in the Xfinity Series next year for JR Motorsports.

“William has all to do with our future down the road,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said.

Even with Byron’s departure, Toyota still has 20-year-old Erik Jones, who moves to the Sprint Cup Series next year and 24-year-old Daniel Suarez in the Xfinity Series.

Toyota’s Camping World Truck Series roster includes 21-year-old Christopher Bell, 19-year-old Ben Rhodes and 24-year-old Rico Abreu, among others. Toyota’s development roster includes 16-year-old Todd Gilliland, who has won five of nine K&N Pro Series West races this year, and 20-year-old Tanner Thorson, the 2015 National Midget Driver of the Year, who made his ARCA debut Sunday.

“The reality is more aren’t going got make it than are going to make it,’’ said David Wilson, TRD’s president. “It gets a lot more difficult the further you go up the ladder.’’

With TRD focused on the four rides at Joe Gibbs Racing and two starting next year at Furniture Row Racing, it won’t be easy for young drivers to move up to those seats.

“We’re comfortable now with Furniture Row and Joe Gibbs Racing,’’ Wilson said. “We have to be careful that we don’t push that growth too fast too soon. Getting to the sixth (Sprint Cup) team … was very, very difficult and again you want to make sure you don’t overload your partners and put yourself in a position they’re not performing like we’re performing right now.’’

With Byron moving out of the Toyota camp next year, there could be a place for Gilliland, son of Sprint Cup driver David Gilliland, to possibly run some Truck races for Kyle Busch Motorsports next year. Todd Gilliland will be limited to running at tracks 1.25 miles and under because he is under 18 years old. He won’t turn 18 until May 2018.

“We’re really impressed with what we see with Todd and think he’s truly one of the handful of special guys,’’ Wilson said. “We’re working with him and his father and certainly would love to see him in a Tundra (in the Truck Series) within the next year or two.’’

Thorson is another driver who is intriguing with his success on dirt tracks.

“One of the critical junctures is going from open wheel to a full-bodied car,’’ Wilson said. “How he performs in these couple of ARCA rides and Late Model rides will dictate when he’s ready to attack a K&N season or a full ARCA season. I like Tanner. He’s a good kid. I think he’s got a future.’’

Thorson finished 12th despite overheating issues in his series debut on the dirt track at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

And there’s Bell, who has watched Byron win so often in the Truck Series. Bell is fifth in the series points with one win (Gateway), five top-five finishes and nine top 10s in 13 starts this year.

So how does Toyota judge Bell’s progress, considering what Byron has done this year?

“You do start by judging him by his peers and by his teammates because of the equipment, but you have to really work with each one of these drivers as individuals because every one of them responds differently,’’ Wilson said. “Christopher came up the open-wheel level.

“With Christopher, what we’ve seen is from day one he’s had speed. One of the toughest things for him and this is indicative of USAC and POWRi racing is they do a couple of 10-lap heat races and then a 25-lap main. Christopher, when he sees that green flag, he drives it like a 25-lap main. It’s great he has speed. Now he’s learning his race craft, he’s learning to take care of his car, take care of his tires, manage his equipment. We’re very pleased with what we’ve seen.’’

SURGING FORWARD

Before last month, Chris Buescher had not finished in the top 15 in a Sprint Cup race. Since placing 14th at Indianapolis, he was won at Pocono, finished 30th at Watkins Glen and placed fifth at Bristol.

The Bristol effort moved him to 30th in the points, making him eligible for the Chase three races before the playoffs. He holds a 13-point lead on David Ragan, who is 31st in the season standings.

Buescher said he saw a turnaround at Kentucky last month before they were collected in a wreck, which we called a “pretty big letdown.’’

The team repaired that Kentucky car — a Roush Fenway Racing car — and Front Row Motorsports used it at Bristol. He had his best overall weekend, making the final round of qualifying for the first time this season and scoring the top-five finish.

“This is very satisfying,’’ crew chief Bob Osborne said of the weekend’s effort. “One thing in our favor for this particular weekend is that Chris has a knack for Bristol. We’ve got momentum on our side.’’

PIT STOPS

Kurt Busch’s streak of opening the season by running every lap ended Sunday in a crash at Bristol. He had run 6,273 consecutive laps to open the season before his crash. That equates to 8,691.914 miles.

Michael McDowell finished 19th at Bristol, marking back-to-back top-20 finishes. He placed 17th at Watkins Glen. This marks the first time in McDowell’s career he’s scored back-to-back top-20 finishes in Cup.

— Kevin Harvick’s victory at Bristol was the first at the track for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Denny Hamlin had his season-high eighth speeding penalty on Sunday at Bristol.

— Kyle Busch’s average finish in two races at Bristol this year: 38.5. Average finish in all the other races: 10.7.

— Bristol marked the first time in the last 10 races that Hendrick Motorsports placed all four cars in the top 15: Jimmie Johnson was seventh, Jeff Gordon was 11th, Kasey Kahne was 13th and Chase Elliott was 15th.