David Wilson realized what was possible in the final practice for the Daytona 500.
That’s when five Toyota cars – driven by Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. – drafted together around Daytona International Speedway during the Saturday session.
It wasn’t until the halfway point of Sunday’s race that Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, allowed himself to believe the manufacturer’s plans would pan out.
The plan resulted in four of the five cars leading 156 of 200 laps and Hamlin besting his Joe Gibbs Racing brethren and “adopted teammate” Truex to earn Toyota’s first Daytona 500 win in its 10th try.
“This is very difficult for me to put in words,” said Wilson. “I cannot articulate adequately what this means to Toyota. I’ll start by saying it’s our single biggest race in our company’s history.”
Hamlin edged Truex by .01 seconds for the closest finish in race history. Busch, who gifted the manufacturer its first Sprint Cup title and Brickyard 400 win in 2015, came in third. Edwards, who joined JGR in 2015 and gave Toyota wins in the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500, was fifth.
Kenseth led 40 laps, but finished 14th after nearly wrecking out of Turn 4 on the last lap while trying to ward off Hamlin’s winning charge.
“We realized that our five cars working together could truly do something special on Sunday,” Wilson said. “But think about how many plans you put in place before the race as momentous as this. You can’t control what you can’t control. Most of the time those plans go by the wayside.
“But our teams, our drivers, had the discipline and the trust in each other to execute that plan to a T. To come all the way to the white flag, 1‑2‑3‑4‑5, and then it was a race.”
Toyota’s triumph comes 10 years after it entered the Sprint Cup Series in an attempt to “connect with the American fans.”
It made its first steps with Michael Waltrip Racing, Red Bull Racing and Bill Davis Racing. The 2016 season opens with all three teams no more after MWR closed shop at the end of 2015. Toyota’s latest chapter includes Joe Gibbs Racing, the team that gave the manufacturer its first Cup win 2008, Furniture Row Racing, which joined the manufacturer before this season, and BK Racing.
“It’s heart‑wrenching that none of the freshmen class are still with us,” Wilson said of those teams Toyota debuted with in Cup. “That’s not the end of the story that any of us wanted to see.”
The origins of Toyota’s winning strategy are in the first meeting between Wilson, Joe Gibbs and Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser over dinner.
“I sensed there was a level of trust in each other and a shared value structure that could allow this collaboration to actually succeed,” Wilson said. “On paper it all looked good. But it’s up to the men and women in both of those shops to execute that collaboration.”
That efforts to fulfill those plans couldn’t begin until Nov. 22 last year, the date of the end of the Sprint Cup season. That was the day Busch won the race and clinched the title and Truex finished fourth in the points standings, a career best.
Ninety-two days later, JGR earned its first Daytona 500 victory since 1993 when the team was with Chevrolet. Since, JGR has also competed under the Pontiac banner. Furniture Row entered the fray after a decade with Chevrolet.
“What they were simply able to achieve to get to the Daytona 500 was truly impressive all by itself,” Wilson said. “As far as today goes, let me be candid. There’s going to be a natural level of question amongst the four JGR drivers about this fifth team and driver. It’s not ingrained, it’s not natural for any type of organization to share and to work together in that fashion.”
That fifth driver is Truex, who almost earned his fourth-career Sprint Cup win and Furniture Row Racing’s third.
“Proud of how we worked together with the JGR guys,” Truex said. “That was important for us to kick off the year, try to start to form that relationship, showing those guys they could trust us, that we’re going to be a strong part of their team.”
Trust was something some NASCAR fans were slow to find in Toyota when it first braved the waters of the Sprint Cup Series in 2007 as a manufacturer that Wilson admitted was “not ready” for what awaited it. The executive called the long road to Toyota’s success “humbling.”
“Fans were apprehensive,” Wilson said. “I think it was a polarizing issue, Toyota being here in the sport. I think our struggles, it so much humanized us and showed everybody that we’re going to have to work as hard as anybody. Nothing comes easy.”