When Denny Hamlin crossed the finish line ahead of MartinTruex Jr. by about one foot to win Sunday’s Daytona 500, Toyota’s decade-long quest to win NASCAR’s biggest race was finally realized.
It was a monumental day for Toyota and the four drivers in its signature team, Joe Gibbs Racing (which, in Hamlin, had a Daytona 500 winner for the first time since 1993). JGR’s Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards all placed in the top five. Matt Kenseth led the race until Hamlin overtook him on the final turn of the final lap.
And, for good measure, Truex drives for Furniture Row Racing, a team that only started with Toyota this season and has a technical alliance with JGR.
So, it was a good day for David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, who spoke with reporters and the Observer’s David Scott after the Daytona 500:
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Q. How important was this victory for Toyota?
“This is very difficult for me to put in words. I cannot articulate adequately what this means to Toyota. I’ll start by saying it’s our single biggest race in our company’s history. I’ll put it in front of the Indy 500, which was a pretty special one back in 2003.”
Q. In 2015, Toyota cars won the All-Star race, the Brickyard 400, the Cup championship and now the Daytona 500? How has Toyota managed to win these kinds of races titles?
“It’s not a single thing that’s clicked. This was our 10th try at the Daytona 500. When we came into the sport, we struggled. We were not ready. We didn’t know. So it’s taken time for us to collectively build an organization with our team partners that is capable of winning races and competing for championships.”
Q. What kind of challenges will there be integrating Furniture Row Racing with Joe Gibbs Racing?
“At the outset when we started talking to Furniture Row … I sensed there was a level of trust in each other and a shared value structure that could allow this collaboration to actually succeed.
“On paper it all looked good. But it’s up to the men and women in both of those shops to execute that collaboration. So far so good.
“There’s going to be a natural level of question amongst the four JGR drivers about this fifth team and driver. It’s not ingrained, it’s not natural for any type of organization to share and to work together in that fashion.
“What Martin Truex Jr. did (Sunday) was huge in saying that he wants to be on this team.”
Q. After being so dominant in IndyCar and CART before, was it humbling to come to NASCAR and have to spend this amount of time to move up?
“It was incredibly humbling. But we didn’t expect to succeed either. Obviously back in 2004, 2007, when we started Cup racing, the fans were apprehensive. I think it was a polarizing issue, Toyota being here in the sport. I think our struggles, it so much humanized us and showed everybody that we’re going to have to work as hard as anybody. Nothing comes easy. The level of competition that this sport has amongst the teams and engineers is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, including CART and IndyCar.”
Q. Back in the beginning, starting with the Bill Davis and Michael Waltrip days, did you think it would take this long to get this good?
“We knew it was going to be a long, tough slog. I’ll admit that I thought within the first five years we might have a shot at a championship. I think the first time I cried in this sport was 2010 when Denny came to Homestead with a 15-point lead, and we lost. Had he won, we would have made that five-year target.
“Like in life when you go through trials, you have the emotion and the heartache, when you do achieve a level of success, it truly is sweeter. Perspective truly is a wonderful thing to have.”
Q. What makes winning the Daytona 500 so emotional for you?
“(In 2007) our goal was to qualify for races. We didn’t know if we could. For Bill Davis and Michael Waltrip and Red Bull, we brought two new teams in the sport.
“It’s heart-wrenching that none of the freshmen class are still with us. That’s not the end of the story that any of us wanted to see. But again, it goes to how difficult, how competitive the sport is.
“It was a combination. You remember the years where (Toyota Racing Development), Toyota, got a lot of heat. We get our hands dirty. I often say that sometimes that’s not the most fun way to do it. Sometimes I want to say, ‘Just let the teams do everything and we’ll support them as best we can.’
“That’s not our culture. Our culture is about participating, learning, getting our hands dirty, building a level of trust with Joe Gibbs and his family.
“They took a chance on Toyota. Look at where they were. Three-time champions. They took a chance on us. The pressure that put on our shoulders to deliver was enormous. I hated that it’s taken us this long.
“Going through that together, the bond that we have with Joe Gibbs and his family and his team is stronger than ever.”
Distance: 325 laps, or 500.5 miles.
Where: Atlanta Motor Speedway, a 1.54-mile, paved trioval in Hampton , Ga.
When: 1 p.m. Sunday.
Radio: Performance Racing Network.
Last year’s winner: Jimmie Johnson.
Also this week: Heads Up Georgia 250, Xfinity Series, Atlanta Motor Speedway, 1:30 p.m., Saturday, Fox Sports 1; Great Clips 200, Truck Series, 4 p.m., Saturday, Fox Sports 1.
Worth mentioning: NASCAR’s low downforce aerodynamic package makes its debut Sunday … Saturday is the season’s only Xfinity-Truck doubleheader.
Rankings based on performance this season to date:
1. Denny Hamlin: Couldn’t have started season in better fashion.
2. Martin Truex Jr.: Handled heart-breaking loss in classy fashion.
3. Matt Kenseth: Block attempt on Hamlin didn’t pay off.
4. Kyle Busch: Still searching for that first Daytona 500 victory.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Driver error, as he called it, cost him, but he was strong until then.
6. Kevin Harvick: Came from rear of the field (backup car) to be a factor late.
7. Carl Edwards: Hung tough after early problems, finished fifth.
8. Jimmie Johnson: Like Harvick, worked his way up from the rear of the field.
9. Joey Logano: One word to describe his 500 – disappointing.
10. Kurt Busch: Like his brother, lacks Daytona victory on his resume.
11. Kyle Larson: Was in lead pack late in the race and finished seventh.
12. Brad Keselowski: Finished 20th, another tough finish for Team Penske.
13. Regan Smith: Had a quietly strong 500, finishing eighth.
14. Ryan Blaney: Will need to keep qualifying well in order to make races.
15. Ryan Newman: Started 38th, finished 11th, quite a charge.
16. Kasey Kahne: Not much spark for the No. 5 Chevy.
1. Denny Hamlin
2. Martin Truex Jr.
3. Kyle Busch
4. Kevin Harvick
5. Carl Edwards
6. Joey Logano
7. Kyle Larson
8. Regan Smith
9. Austin Dillon
10. Kurt Busch
11. Ryan Newman
12. Aric Almirola
13. Kasey Kahne
14. Matt Kenseth
15. Michael McDowell
16. Jimmie Johnson
17. Jamie McMurray
18. Paul Menard
19. Ryan Blaney
20. Brad Keselowski
21. AJ Allmendinger
22. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
23. Landon Cassill
24. Brian Scott
25. Brian Vickers
26. Michael Annett
27. Trevor Bayne
28. David Ragan
29. Michael Waltrip
30. Bobby Labonte
31. Casey Mears
32. Clint Bowyer
33. Greg Biffle
34. Danica Patrick
35. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
36. Chase Elliott
37. Robert Richardson Jr.
38. Chris Buescher
39. Matt DiBenedetto