It’s been a mixed bag of results so far this season for Toyota teams in NASCAR.
The manufacturer’s teams in the Sprint Cup Series have struggled on the intermediate tracks, which make up the bulk of the series schedule, but entering Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway, already have two drivers – Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth – locked in the championship Chase.
The two wins – both on short tracks – in the first eight races of the season already match the manufacturer’s total for the entire 2014 season.
David Wilson is president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development, and is responsible for all of its activities in North America, including engine development, manufacturing and chassis design and development as well as team and sanctioning body relationships for Toyota teams participating in NASCAR, USAC, NHRA, the Tudor United Sports Car Championship and off-road racing.
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The Observer spoke with Wilson on Friday at Richmond about Toyota’s 2015 NASCAR season.
Q. How would you evaluate Toyota’s season in NASCAR so far?
It’s a work in progress. The simplistic metric I’m looking at now is we’re eight races in and we’ve won two. Last year we only won two through the entire season. It’s only April and to have a couple of wins under our belt and to have a couple drivers locked in the Chase in certainly a positive indicator. Obviously, what is apparent is Joe Gibbs Racing’s short track program is back to where it was a couple of years ago, which is pretty darn strong. We still have some work to do on our intermediate package. Texas was embarrassing and honestly we’ve been scratching our heads a little bit because at Fontana (Calif.) we didn’t win, but if Matt (Kenseth) hadn’t broken a drive shaft we would have been right there. I’m actually looking forward to getting to Kansas in May. We’ve actually been working on some stuff targeted for Kansas and that will be a real indicator of how strong we’ll be through the middle of the season.
Q. Now that you basically already have two Toyota teams locked in the Chase, does that give those teams and TRD the opportunity to experiment and perhaps better prepare for the championship?
There’s no question, we’re actually trying stuff as early as next weekend. We’ve got a couple things that we might be a little hesitant to try but with Hamlin and Kenseth locked in, those guys and their crew chiefs are wide-open to try some new things. That affords us a little bit of breathing room to look at some new things and perhaps get a little aggressive.
Q. How big of a step forward did you consider winning this season on a type of track on which you struggled last season?
The short track program at the Gibbs camp has been historically their bread-and-butter and last year we were slow to adapt to the rule changes, particularly the no ride-height rule. We were just a tick off in a number of areas – car and engine – and we really didn’t get our stuff going well until the Chase started. To have two short tracks under our belt already is a big positive.
Q. Since Toyota has the fewest number of teams of the three manufacturers, how big a loss has it been this season when two of your full-time drivers – Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers – have been sidelined by health-related issues?
Particularly with Kyle, it’s been a huge loss. I always say Kyle is a good ‘earner’ and he’s usually good for a pretty good chunk of wins in all three national series. That’s certainly been a loss. With Brian, and with Michael Waltrip Racing being a two-car team, losing one-half of your starters has really hurt Clint (Bowyer, Vickers’ teammate). Brett Moffitt (Vickers’ recent substitute) just doesn’t have the behind-the-wheel seat-time at the Cup level to really offer the level of quality feedback to Clint that he needs. It’s probably been a bigger impact at MWR from an overall team perspective. Over in the Gibbs camp, they have three solid hitters in Matt, Denny and Carl (Edwards). There is no question the absences hurt.
Q. Do you see the months of May and June, filled with intermediate tracks, as a gauge of how well Toyota teams have really progressed over last season?
You have Kansas, you have the Coke 600 at Charlotte, Dover, Pocono, Michigan – I think that stretch will be an important indicator of how well we’ve addressed our intermediate program. Again, we’ve got a couple of good short track wins, struggled at Texas, but we have some new bits and pieces coming at Kansas that we’re all very excited about. We have a lot of anticipation of what may come out of the next few weeks.
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter