Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Toyota executive calls Truck Series ‘critical step’ in developing drivers

Leave a comment

A Toyota Racing Development executive says that the manufacturer would accept a spec engine in the Camping World Truck Series, noting how valuable that series is for the development of drivers.

David Wilson, president of TRD, made the comments Friday on “Tradin’ Paint” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

NASCAR tested a spec engine for the Truck series multiple times last year and it is expected to be optional this season.

Wilson admits the spec engine idea has raised concerns among manufacturers.

“It is a little bit of a sensitive issue with all the manufactures,’’ Wilson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Arguably the biggest single piece of (intellectual property) in any car or truck is the engine, so certainly that’s important to us.

“By the same token we understand the bigger picture. We have been working with NASCAR, all the (manufacturers) have been working with NASCAR to make sure that we keep this series going because here’s the bottom line — while our motivation to run in Trucks has changed over the years, it remains an absolute critical step in how we as an industry develop drivers.

“The leap from ARCA or K&N or Super Late Models straight to Xfinity, that’s too big of a leap. You need a step and that Truck Series is a very important step. You look the drivers that have come through just in our camp — Erik Jones, Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez — that experience in the Truck garage has been absolutely critical in preparing them to be successful in Xfinity and ultimately in Cup. We’re going to continue to take a big picture approach with the Truck Series and work with our friends at NASCAR. If there are some spec engines that have to be under a Tundra hood, so be it, we’ll be OK.’’

Last year’s Xfinity champion and rookie of the year, William Byron, ran a full season in Trucks in 2016. Erik Jones, the 2016 Xfinity rookie of the year, ran 17 Truck races before his Xfinity debut. Daniel Suarez, the 2017 Xfinity rookie of the year, had run only one Truck race before his Xfinity rookie season but he also ran 13 Truck races while competing in Xfinity that first year.

Those young drivers also illustrate Toyota’s emphasis on new talent. But with only five seats — four with Joe Gibbs Racing and one with Furniture Row Racing —  with Cup teams partnered with TRD, Toyota is having a hard time finding spots for all its drivers.

Wilson said the manufacturer remains committed to developing drivers.

“It’s a commitment that Toyota has made to NASCAR and to motorsports,’’ he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We enjoy a tremendous amount of value. NASCAR is simply a phenomenal place for us to race. This is part of our payback.

“We feel like we have the social responsibility to give back to the series. We know we’ll lose as many of these young guys and gals as we’ll be able to keep because we simply won’t have enough seats for them. That’s just simple math. It’s already been proven out by William Byron (who raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports in Trucks before moving to Chevrolet in Xfinity and now Cup). We’ll be racing against William, who used to be in a Toyota.

“Bottom line this sport still benefits. As I’ve said before, getting to know these young kids and getting to know their parents at a young age and as they’re coming up in the sport, I believe that will pay dividends. These kids can have a career that spans decades. Who’s to say that we won’t cross paths again? By us building that relationship early on, showing them who we are … the responsibly we have to their well-being, I think it’s a sound investment.’’

 and on Facebook

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

(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images
1 Comment

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.

 and on Facebook.

Toyota unveils new Camry for NASCAR

Michael L. Levitt
3 Comments

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.

Upon Further Review: Bristol Night Race

Leave a comment

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.

Furniture Row Racing owner ‘fairly certain’ Erik Jones will leave after 2017 season

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
2 Comments

Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser said that he is “fairly certain” Erik Jones, who has a one-year contract to drive for the team next year, will leave after the 2017 season but is confident in attracting a talented driver to the team’s second car for 2018.

Visser made the comments Wednesday night on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Dailed In” show. Visser’s comments mirror what NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan reported last weekend — that Jones could return to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018 or ’19. Visser said last weekend that “we hope to make (Jones’ contract) many more” years beyond 2017.

On SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Visser talked more about Jones and looking beyond next season with the organization’s second team.

“If we don’t have him, we will have somebody else,” Visser told host Claire B. Lang. “With how we’re running, we will get a very, very good driver after he leaves, if he leaves, and I’m fairly certain he will. We will attract one of the best drivers in the garage for that second slot I am confident. The cars are just going to be running too well. The first car is running too well. It all builds on itself. It all kind of snowballs in the right direction.”

Lang then asked Visser if he really felt Jones would leave the team.

“I think probably so,” Visser said. “I think that’s most likely. We’re working on that. What I am saying is the team will go on no matter what and people need to understand that when they come looking for jobs.”

Should Jones run only next year at Furniture Row Racing in the Sprint Cup Series, then Joe Gibbs Racing would have to make a change to bring him back. That team’s lineup features former champions Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and former series runner-up Carl Edwards. Kenseth, the team’s oldest driver, will turn 46 during the 2018 season.

Jones said at last weekend’s announcement that he’ll join Furniture Row Racing in 2017 that “I have a one-year agreement with Furniture Row, and I’m not sure where it will go after that. There’s a lot of factors that go into it. As next year goes on, we’ll be able to know better. But honestly, I don’t think many of us know what the total plan is there.”

Said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, last weekend: “Whether Erik stays in the 77 (at Furniture Row) or another young talent comes up and Erik goes somewhere else, we honestly don’t know at this point.”

Furniture Row Racing is adding a second car to run Jones next year and be a teammate to Martin Truex Jr., who recently signed a two-year contract to stay with the team.

Jones is one of the most prized young drivers in the sport. He’s progressed swiftly through Toyota’s ranks in the Camping World Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports and the Xfinity Series with JGR. The 20-year-old won the Camping World Truck Series championship last year, becoming the youngest champion in series history. His three Xfinity wins this season are the most among full-time drivers in that series.