Toyota awaiting breakthrough in its backyard
March 22, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
FONTANA, Calif. -- Clint Bowyer now does more than drive a Toyota -- he sells them, too. Earlier this week the Michael Waltrip Racing driver purchased the dealership in his hometown of Emporia, Kan., where he once worked in the body shop. During a visit Thursday to the manufacturer’s Southern California headquarters, he received his official dealer plaque and handbook.
“It was a new endeavor for me,” Bowyer said Friday at Auto Club Speedway, “so it was kind of neat.”
Calling on Toyota’s command central, though, is nothing new for drivers who make the pilgrimage each time NASCAR competes in the region. Bowyer was among a host of drivers from various circuits who appeared Thursday at Toyota Motor Sales’ 19th annual motorsports day in Torrance, where the manufacturer’s U.S. operations are based. And new Toyota driver Matt Kenseth visited the Orange County headquarters of Toyota Racing Development, which builds engines for MWR and Joe Gibbs Racing.
It’s always a big occasion -- 3,000 people work at the Toyota facility in Torrance, where drivers signed autographs for an hour and a half. Michigan International Speedway may be the track Ford and Chevrolet drivers call their own, given that venue’s proximity to Detroit. Teams supported by Toyota feel the same way about Fontana. Now, if only they could win here.
Strangely enough, Auto Club Speedway is one of two tracks -- the other being Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- where the manufacturer has yet to win on the sport’s highest level. Toyota vehicles have dominated Nationwide Series events here, carrying an eight-race winning streak into this weekend. But the best Toyota drivers have managed in Sprint Cup Series events on the 2-mile track is second, by Kyle Busch in last year’s rain-shortened race won by Tony Stewart.
Bowyer, the manufacturer’s highest-ranking driver in the Sprint Cup standings, believes a breakthrough is on the way.
“I think this is a track that Toyota is going to win at soon,” said last season’s series runner-up, currently fourth in points. “Our speeds are fast with our Toyotas on these big race tracks. A Toyota won at the only mile-and-a-half we've had so far -- that speed will carry over, I believe, on this race track. There's several of us that run well here as teams and drivers and our equipment is certainly second to none, so we'll be just fine.”
Indeed, it was Kenseth who claimed the opening event on an intermediate track this season, prevailing with his new JGR team two weeks ago on a Las Vegas Motor Speedway track that like Fontana puts a premium on horsepower. Kenseth also enjoyed success here with his previous organization, winning three times in Roush Fenway Fords, most recently in 2009.
But those victories may not necessarily help him now, given that NASCAR’s top series is rolling out a redesigned, more brand-identifiable car that’s competing on tracks this year for the first time. Friday, teams were allotted extra practice time to fine-tune their cars on the 2-mile track. Each of the three manufacturers on the Sprint Cup tour has won at least once through the first four races, leading five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to believe that no carmaker has an edge to this point.
“I haven’t seen anything that would lead me one way or the other,” said Johnson, whose Chevrolet prevailed in the season-opening Daytona 500. “I’ve honestly thought more about teams than I have makes of cars. The Gibbs cars at Bristol, all three were very fast. It’s been more about teams to me than really makes. The MWR cars have ben fast at different times. So it’s been like a grouping of teams than really manufacturers to me.”
Of course, JGR and MWR each field Toyotas, which claimed four of the top seven spots -- led by Bowyer -- in the first practice session at Fontana. But Chevrolet has been the only manufacturer to win more than once, with Kasey Kahne’s victory last week at Bristol following Johnson’s triumph at Daytona. And driving a Ford, reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski is the only driver to record top-five finishes in every race this season. To Bowyer, that parity is by design, and evident in the new car’s results.
“I think it shows that in NASCAR, the manufactures and everybody did their homework and did a good job preparing these new race cars,” he said. “You're seeing all three manufacturers running well, having good speed and sharing success, like it should be. There's no one manufacturer or one team really separating from the next guy. That's a good product of racing.”
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