By signing NASCAR’s top ‘free agent,’ Toyota is well-poised to re-take title in 2019

Martin Truex Jr. (left) joins Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing this season.
Martin Truex Jr. (left) joins Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing this season. AP

It isn’t often that a driver of Martin Truex Jr.’s caliber just saunters onto the open market.

A former champion, still with several strong years of driving ahead of him, and on the heels of back-to-back title race appearances? For all the above reasons, it’s more than fair to say that Truex was NASCAR’s preeminent free agent this offseason once his former team, Furniture Row Racing, officially shuttered and discontinued operations.

But really, calling Truex a “free agent” isn’t totally accurate. Given Furniture Row’s alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, it only made sense for Truex to jump to JGR after Furniture Row made the unfortunate decision to shut down. Gibbs’ loftier budget surely eased that decision, too. As does having an elite teammate, like fellow championship runner-up Kyle Busch.

And so that brings us up to speed, in a world where two of NASCAR’s truly elite drivers not only share a manufacturer, as they have for years, but now also a roof. Literally. Compared to more expansive operations from competitors Chevrolet and Ford, it’s hard not to look at Toyota’s offseason and want to offer applause.

The only thing that could possibly make an addition like Truex’s sweeter for Gibbs (and subsequently Toyota, whose investment in NASCAR’s top series is almost exclusively tied to JGR) would be if he were coming off a championship already. Alas, a narrow second-place will have to suffice.

The outlook for Gibbs this season couldn’t be stronger, but for Toyota overall, the situation isn’t far different from this most recent NASCAR Cup Series season. Busch and Truex were expected to compete for the title... and they did. Young star Erik Jones was expected to break through and win his first race... and he did. Daniel Suarez (who left JGR for Stewart-Haas Racing once Truex took his spot on the team) and Denny Hamlin didn’t have as prolific a season as expected, but neither was expected to really contend for a title, either.

It’s still strength at the top, and then... well, everyone else, at least as far as Toyota’s championship hopes are concerned.

About those hopes: After struggling with its new Camaro ZL1 in 2018, Chevrolet will be looking for a bounce-back season in 2019, especially from its most promising driver, Chase Elliott. Chevy’s other young darling, Kyle Larson, just missed out on a handful of wins last season, but even one season removed from a championship-caliber year in 2017, it’s unlikely Chevy can keep up with Toyota next year.

The Ford roster presents much more of a challenge to Toyota, as its top two contenders, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano, absolutely can keep pace with Truex and Busch — or beat them altogether, like what happened at the championship race in November. Logano and Truex jockeyed for the lead in the race’s final laps, but Logano’s Ford ultimately had more short-run speed than Truex’s Toyota.

That said, Ford will debut its new Mustang this season, meaning like the Chevy’s last year, there will likely be a feeling-out process of sorts over the first few races. Add in NASCAR’s new rules package, which is designed to create closer racing by drastically changing every car’s aerodynamics, and there’s still plenty of uncertainty to go around about what 2019 has in store for NASCAR’s top teams.

Only one thing is for certain, though, and that’s that Toyota has as good a shot as anyone to reclaim the Cup Series trophy in 2019. With Truex and Busch leading the charge, and Jones and Hamlin providing valuable depth behind them, it’s not unthinkable that Toyota gets all four of those drivers into the final eight come playoff time.

And like Ford proved last season when it did the same, that sort of consistency usually yields the desired result.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
Support my work with a digital subscription