Long: Toyota boss celebrates win weeks after ‘our worst performance’ in Cup

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RICHMOND, Va. — Three weeks after what the president of Toyota Racing Development described as “our worst performance in our history racing in (the Cup) series,” a Toyota was in victory lane Sunday at Richmond Raceway.

Denny Hamlin’s win meant so much for the manufacturer and Joe Gibbs Racing, giving both a better feeling about the future.

Concern was raised last month at Phoenix Raceway. Toyotas led none of the 312 laps at the track that will host the championship race in November. 

Toyota had won the Phoenix playoff race from 2017-19, but has not won the playoff race there since it became the site of the championship in 2020.

While Toyota had two cars in the top 10 at Phoenix last month — Kurt Busch was fifth and Kyle Busch was seventh — the struggles with the Next Gen car were eye-opening for Wilson.

“It was absolutely embarrassing,” he told NBC Sports on Sunday. “We more than missed it. We screwed that up royally, and we made some mistakes heading to Phoenix. Knowing that obviously the championship is going to be settled at Phoenix, we needed to figure out what we did wrong, and we needed to run well here.

“This, for us, as much as anything, gives us a degree of confidence, and believe me, we are feeling a lot better getting back to Phoenix in the fall.”

What changed after Phoenix for Toyota?

Wilson said Toyota and its team did a better job with its simulation program and understanding how the new, larger tire reacts on the track. 

“We made some errors … in some of the work we had been doing,” Wilson told NBC Sports without revealing specifics. “We’ve had some a-ha moments over the past few weeks. What translated to the racetrack gave us the confidence of ‘OK, now we have a better understanding of that,’ and it’s pointing in the right direction.”

Hamlin’s victory snapped an 12-race winless streak for Joe Gibbs Racing. That doesn’t seem like much but Gibbs had won 46 of the last 108 races (42.6 percent) entering this season.

“When you’ve had the level of success we’ve enjoyed, you have expectations of yourself, and the folks that I work for have expectations,” Wilson said. “You become a bit of a victim of your own success. In saying that, we checked a huge box.”

Sunday marked the first time this year that JGR placed all four of its cars in the top 10.

Richmond helps make up for some of the early woes for JGR and Toyota. That included the February race at Auto Club Speedway. Toyota designed a screen to keep debris out of the radiator, but the screen ended up clogging with debris and caused overheating issues.

“We’ve been beating ourselves up like you cannot believe because some of what we’ve seen over the first six races have been shooting ourselves in the foot,” Wilson said.

“Those are the tough ones and the hard ones to swallow. The good news is that we have found some things that we missed and that we are looking at now, and I think those things will help us as we move forward the next few weeks.”

Even with the win, it doesn’t mean Toyota has caught up to Chevrolet, which has won four of the first seven races, or even match Ford, which was two wins this year. 

“In today’s NASCAR schedule, the one thing that’s hard to find is anything common,” said winning crew chief Chris Gabehart. “We’re comparing Richmond to Phoenix, which any insider would tell you is not much of a comparison. But it’s all we have to draw off of these days because (NASCAR has) done such a nice job of diversifying the schedule such that there is not a common thread.”

Sunday’s race, the seventh points race of the season, marked the seventh different type of track. Next week’s race at Martinsville Speedway will be the first time the series will race on a similar style track — a short track — this season but even that is a bit misleading. What is learned at Richmond won’t necessarily translate to Martinsville because these short tracks vary greatly.

It also doesn’t mean that Hamlin will retain his success at Martinsville, a track at which he’s scored five Cup wins in his career. That’s how much the Next Gen car can impact things and how much teams have to learn about the new car.

“I could see Martinsville being one of the more different races for a guy like Denny that we’ve went to yet,” Gabehart said. “Denny is so honed in at Martinsville through so many different types of cars over his career.

“In a Cup car, we took 80 horsepower away from him, gave him 2-inch wider car. It is a 200-pound heavier car. It has a higher center of gravity and better brakes. He’s going to go to Martinsville in the first 10 laps and be as lost as last year’s Easter egg.

“He was so honed in on perfection of what that car was for so many years. This car is going to be wildly different. I think that’s going to be a lot of fun for you watch, why you’re seeing great racing. But golly, it’s a lot of learning for these guys, for sure.”

That’s what makes Sunday’s win mean so much and the overall performance by Toyota. Its drivers combined to lead 149 of 400 laps. 

“What I keep telling everybody, what I’m looking forward to most is I know we’re not at our best right now,” Gabehart said. “There’s a lot of things internally we got to get better. We’re on a road to doing it. It’s nice to win in spite of that, to be honest.”