toyota

Friday 5: Manufacturer teamwork at ‘Dega fraught with questions

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Toyota devised the blueprint. Ford enhanced it. And Chevrolet took lessons from both to win the past two races at Talladega and Daytona by having its teams work together.

I feel like Chevy has kind of taken that to the next level recently to where we all have to figure out a way to beat that,” Joey Logano said.

For fans who long for the good ol’ days of manufacturer battles, Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) will provide that type of action. But it does create some thorny issues with this being a playoff race. Such as:

  • How long should drivers within the same manufacturer work together?
  • What if a non-playoff driver is racing a playoff driver from the same manufacturer for the win?
  • How can Toyota, which has fewer cars than Chevrolet and Ford, compete?

There’s much at stake this weekend, particularly for Chevrolet, which has not had a driver race for the championship in Miami since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title. Kyle Larson is set for the next round via last week’s win at Dover, but Chevy’s other three remaining playoff drivers are not in a secure spot.

Alex Bowman is seventh in the standings 17 points ahead of Logano, who is the first driver outside a transfer spot. William Byron holds that final transfer spot via a tiebreaker with Logano. Chase Elliott, who won at Talladega in May, is seven points behind Byron.

Toyota started the trend of teams within a manufacturer working together in 2016, leading to Denny Hamlin’s Daytona 500 win and a 1-2-3 Toyota finish. Ford used its strengths in numbers and won seven consecutive races at Daytona and Talladega before Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 win in 2018. 

The more cars working together, the more that group can dictate the race.

It wasn’t until after Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) and Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet) worked together in this year’s Daytona 500 to counter the Fords that Chevrolet executives ordered their teams to work together starting at Talladega in late April.

“The benefit of working together is too great versus the penalty of not working together,” Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, told NBC Sports in April.

Chevrolet drivers followed orders, running nose-to-tail with near-military precision throughout the Talladega race this season. It didn’t matter if it was the bottom lane or top lane, many Chevrolets ran together. When it came time to pit, many stopped together.

The results were impressive.

Chevrolet drivers won both stages, the race and took five of the top six spots at Talladega. Chevrolet drivers won the second stage, the race and took the top four spots at Daytona in July.

Elliott said that Sunday’s race is “going to look real similar to what it did at Talladega in the spring and Daytona in the summer. We made a pretty conscious effort with our manufacturer of Chevrolet to try and do a better job of working together. It worked at Talladega. A lot of us crashed, but at least a Chevrolet still won the summer race at Daytona. Hopefully it works out.

“That’s the thing, we can put as much effort as we want or as little effort as we want, but it’s never going to guarantee that you aren’t going to crash or have a bad day there. I expect we’ll do our part on our end to try and make as good of a day as we can out of it, but no guarantees.”

2. How long should drivers work together?

This is the one of the biggest issues. When can a driver make a move that is best for them even if it hurts a teammate in the same manufacturer camp?

Joey Logano was not pleased that fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell chose to push Kyle Busch’s Toyota on the last lap of this year’s Daytona 500 instead of Logano’s Ford.

“Typically you kind of expect manufacturers to work together,” Logano said after the race.

McDowell’s reply?

“Fords weren’t that friendly to me this weekend.”

It’s an issue all drivers running at the finish will have to ponder.

You are kind of almost in a box because sometimes what is good for the group is not the best for yourself and you feel like you are compromising sometimes,” said Ryan Blaney, who enters this weekend last among the 12 remaining playoff drivers. “It might not help you out. That part makes it a little bit tough. At the end of the day, Chevy made it work at the first Talladega so hopefully we can make it work. It is hard to plan and orchestrate stuff like that when everything in the race is going. It has turned into that though.

“You can’t blame the manufacturer for wanting to do that. They put a lot of support behind the teams and they find those spots to say that if we have strength in numbers that we should be able to win the race.”

Until strategies change.

“I feel like we see that a lot at the plate tracks,” Brad Keselowski said of changing strategies. “It goes through evolutions every three or four years, and this is the next evolution.”

3. What if a non-playoff driver is racing for the win?

With all the teamwork within a manufacturer, there could be an issue if non-playoff drivers are among those racing at the front late.

Six of the top 10 finishers at Talladega in May were drivers who are not in the playoffs entering this weekend. Ryan Preece finished third in that race, placing behind Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.

So how does a non-playoff driver handle racing playoff drivers?

Ty Dillon‘s best Cup career finish came at Daytona in July when he placed fourth. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“I think early on in the race, it’s still the same racing that we’ve done all year,” Ty Dillon said. “I think when you get to the end of the race, you have  … to be aware that it’s hard to help someone that’s fighting for a championship. Sometimes at places like Talladega and Daytona, if you try to help somebody, you might end up causing the crash letting somebody in or something like that. I think that’s truly known throughout the series as drivers.

“Everywhere else, I race with the mentality that during the first half of the race, we’re all racing together. If you get down to the end of the race and one of those guys is on your tail and you’re holding them up, I would expect to give those guys a little bit of a leeway. They are racing for something bigger right now and it’s with the hopes that the respect will be returned one day in your favor.

“I expect to be racing for championships at some point in my career. I would like that kind of respect back. For me, I’m racing for 22nd or 23rd in points. It doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, but those guys have a lot more on the line for one position. … I think you’ve got to be smart. You don’t want to be the guy that screws up the guy going for the (championship) because you want to be in that position where somebody gives you the benefit of a doubt when you need it.”

4. What about Toyota teams?

Toyotas are at a disadvantage with having the fewest cars in the field. It’s why Joe Gibbs Racing partnered with Hendrick Motorsports for the Daytona 500. Seven of the 40 cars entered this weekend are Toyotas. Ford has 15 entries and Chevrolet has 18.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Denny Hamlin said. “We are outnumbered, We know that. Ultimately they can’t decide what line you choose to run in. So, from my standpoint … if I’m around a bunch of Fords and they’re staying in line, I’m staying in line. It doesn’t matter what manufacturer I’m with, I’m just going to do whatever is best for me. I think that has been the thing that has made us successful over the years is having that mentality.

“You look at the teamwork from the Fords and Chevys at the last few years. In the end, you still have a bunch of guys in there that haven’t won a race. They still have to be selfish even with their own teammates. That’s when you try to take advantage.”

Another key issue with the Toyotas having fewer entries is if Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin, Kyle Busch – the top three in points – would be better off running at the back for at least part of the race. Truex can’t fall out of the top eight in points regardless of how poor he finishes Sunday. Hamlin and Busch are each 48 points ahead of Logano in the standings.

Asked on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America MotorMouths if his strategy would be to run up front, run at the back or just go for the win. Busch said: “Yes. All three.

“I’m sure at some point we’re going to be running at the back at somewhere or another, we might even qualify there. Past that … you want to get up within the top 10 to get those stage points.”

Busch ultimately said: “I think you just have to go out there and race and race as hard as you can.”

5. Kevin Harvick pit crew member returns

Daniel Smith. (Photo by Dustin Long)

Daniel Smith returns this weekend as the rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team after missing the past eight races because of a surgery needed as part of his treatment for testicular cancer.

Smith missed the final 13 races of last season after the cancer was discovered. He returned at Daytona in February.

He had not missed a race this season until the surgery, which was originally planned for in the spring but moved to August.

Smith joined Haas-CNC Racing in 2004 and worked his way on to the pit crew. He remained with the team when it was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing and was a pit crew member on Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship team. Smith and his teammates were moved to Kevin Harvick’s team shortly before the 2014 postseason and helped Harvick win the title.

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Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota doing more with less as it goes for ‘Crown Jewel’ sweep

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Sunday’s Brickyard 400 (2 p.m. ET on NBC) presents a big opportunity for Joe Gibbs Racing as NASCAR heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The four-car team has the chance to become the first team to complete a sweep of the Cup Series’ four “Crown Jewel” races – which includes the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 — in the same year.

And should Kyle Busch come out on top with his third Brickyard win, it will have completed the sweep with all four of its drivers.

Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500 for his second victory in the race in February, Martin Truex Jr. then claimed his second Coke 600 title in May and Erik Jones finally broke through with his first win of the year in the Southern 500.

“That’s just insane, it truly is,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.” “To do it with one organization, to do with so far with three different drivers, again it kind of comes back to having the balance that we have across that organization.”

Jones’ win gave JGR 13 wins through 25 races and JGR is the only team to have every driver win this season. The 13 wins is the second-most all-time through 25 races. Carl Kiekhafer Racing had 20 wins at this point in the 1956 season.

Before this year, the most recent examples of a team scoring at least 11 wins through 25 races was Hendrick Motorsports in 2007 and 1998.

“We certainly didn’t expect to win this many races this early in the season,” Wilson said. “Candidly, this year our target was to win no less than 12 races. We’ve checked that box. Our target was to get four Toyota drivers into the playoffs. We checked that box. My gosh, we darn near had five drivers in the playoffs with the way (Matt DiBenedetto‘s) been driving and what he almost did at Bristol.”

Compared to Toyota, Ford has seven wins and Chevrolet has five.

Those are remarkable totals given that Toyota Racing Development only has five full-time entries in the Cup Series, which includes Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 car. In the Southern 500, there were 16 Ford entries and 17 Chevrolet entries, plus Joey Gase, who also raced a Toyota.

Wilson discussed how Toyota, with JGR as its flagship organization, has found success in the Cup Series despite its low car count.

“This has been a very deliberate strategy,” Wilson said. “It’s contrary to our initial strategy when we came in the sport (Toyota entered the Cup Series in 2007). … At the time Dodge was still participating so we were one of four manufacturers. I simply divided by four and said ultimately our target is to have a proportionate representation on the race track. But circumstantially that just never worked out and what we came to realize and came to appreciate is that having a disproportionate of a few number of cars allowed us to concentrate our resources.

“Because don’t think as we add teams I get more budget, that just doesn’t happen. So again, by having fewer, yet higher quality teams, that’s proven quite successful. It bites us on the speedways (Daytona and Talladega) in the way we’ve come to race on the speedway, just because it does become a numbers game. But by and large you look at the last five years and that served us very well.”

Toyota has two Cup championship since 2015 and has won 72 Cup races in that time

What would it take for Toyota to invest in more entries? Simply, lower costs to compete.

“We as a manufacturer could expand our footprint without necessarily expanding our budget,” Wilson said. “Again, if we can do that in a manner that doesn’t compromise our overall effort as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer), then we’re certainly open to that. The other thread to that common denominator is that it’s not just numbers, it is the quality of the teams and organizations. The industry has been talking a lot about this recently and Matt DiBenedetto and his situation at Leavine Family Racing is kind of an example of this. But it’s not just good enough to have a great driver, you have to have a business plan that will support that driver, partners and sponsors and all of those pieces coming together.

“Again, our success is founded upon the strength of our teams and every piece of that team, the driver, the crew chief, the engineer, the manufacturing, all that comes together. If there are opportunities that present themselves to us with quality organizations, quality people and tied to, again, a model, a participation model that allows us to more with the same, then why wouldn’t we consider adding to our fold?”

Matt DiBenedetto taking IMSA GTO throwback to Darlington

Leavine Family Racing
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Matt DiBenedetto‘s car for Sunday’s Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN) will throw back to a sports car rather than a stock car.

Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota will pay tribute to the turbo-charged GTO Celicas that won the driver’s championship in the IMSA GTU (under three-liter) category in 1987 with Chris Cord.

This championship-winning IMSA GTO program carried the red, orange and yellow striped color scheme which is associated with Toyota in American motorsports.

Chevrolet boss happy with three-race Cup winning streak but wants more

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Even with a three-race Cup winning streak, the head of Chevrolet’s NASCAR program wants more victories as the playoffs near.

Jim Campbell, vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet, made the comments Wednesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

In the last three races, Chevrolet has won with Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona International Speedway) and Kurt Busch (Kentucky Speedway). Until that string, Chevrolet had won only once this year with Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega Superspeedway.

Last year, Chevrolet had four Cup wins, its fewest victories in Cup since scoring three wins in 1982.

“We have really, really, I think, increased the collaboration (among Chevrolet teams) to another level, and I think we need to because we’ve got to put more wins on the board,” Campbell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The Chevy camp is used to putting 10, 12, 15 wins on the board a year. Right now we’re at four. We expect more of ourselves. I know the teams are looking for more wins and I’ll call it top-five finishes. Talladega was kind of a turbocharger for us to get everyone really working at the next level.”

Chevrolet won at Talladega after an increased effort to have its teams work together throughout the weekend and during the race. Chevrolet made the effort after seeing how successful Toyota and Ford teams were at Daytona and Talladega by working together. Until then, Chevrolet had allowed its teams and drivers to go their own way at those tracks.

“Over the years, Chevy results were pretty doggone strong without a massive work-together effort,” Campbell said during the radio interview. “I think we go back to ’16 and Toyota put together an effort to get some of the (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) guys working together and I think in the fall, the Ford camp was doing that. So, it was time, it was time that we just pulled ourselves together and really worked across all of our teams.”

With seven races left until the Cup playoffs begin, Chevrolet has three drivers set for the playoffs via wins: Elliott, Bowman and Busch. Chevrolet also has three competitors who would qualify for the 16-driver playoffs as of today via points with William Byron 12th in the standings, Kyle Larson 13th and Jimmie Johnson 15th.

Johnson’s position is tenuous. He is 10 points ahead of Ford’s Ryan Newman, who holds the first spot outside a playoff position.

“I look at the trajectory,” Campbell said of Chevrolet’s progress. “Are we on the trajectory up or are we flat or are we down? I would say the momentum is going up, but it’s all performance based. We’ve got to put wins on the board, more top 10s.”

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Bump and Run: Who is next to score first win of Cup season?

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Who is the next driver to score their first win of the season?

Nate Ryan: Kevin Harvick … and the next win will be the first of at least a few in 2019.

Dustin Long: Ryan Blaney.

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson gets it done at Kentucky.

Jerry Bonkowski: Kevin Harvick (but Kyle Larson is a very close candidate to also do so).

 

What do you predict will happen in the month of July in NASCAR?

Nate Ryan: Joe Gibbs Racing’s 2020 driver lineup will be solidified.

Dustin Long: Something surprising from the garage. Stay tuned.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr. gets one last monkey off his back and wins his first superspeedway race at Daytona.

Jerry Bonkowski: I think we’ll see some clarity on the Joe Gibbs Racing situation vis-a-vis Christopher Bell and Erik Jones. I also expect to see at least one more first-time winner in 2019, and at least one winless driver in 2019 finally cashes in. I also expect to hear at least one driver being announced he will not be returning to his present team for 2020.

Chevrolet teams worked together at Talladega and the result was Chase Elliott winning. Will this newfound togetherness lead to a Chevy winning at Daytona this weekend?

Nate Ryan: No; teamwork seems to matter less in the night race at Daytona (and if there’s as much attrition as last year, it probably won’t matter at all).

Dustin Long: It will help them early in the race but attrition and circumstances will make it matter less at the end.

Daniel McFadin: It’ll be a challenge. Ford will probably fight fire with fire and Toyota will put up a fight. But plans only work until they don’t. I don’t think Chevy wins in Daytona.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given how dominating Toyota has been, Chevrolet has to rip a page from Toyota’s notebook to get itself back in the middle of the hunt not only for the manufacturer’s championship, but more importantly, to get several more of its drivers back in victory lane and put pressure on Toyota.

 

Clint Bowyer has finished 35th or worse in two of the past three races and then this week he was stung by wasps in a barn. What would you suggest for Bowyer so that his bad luck might end?

Nate Ryan: The man known for amateur pyrotechnic skills should host his own personal fireworks show Thursday night above Lake Lloyd, soaking in the goodwill from the infield campers that he will dazzle on the Fourth of July.

Dustin Long: Blow something up. Even if it doesn’t work, you’ve blown something up and got to feel good.

Daniel McFadin: Put a keepsake from his son’s recent championship on the diamond in his car.

Jerry Bonkowski: Call in an exorcist – and fast, before he suffers any more bad luck.