RICHMOND, Va. — Three weeks after what the president of Toyota Racing Development described as “our worst performance in our racing history in (the Cup),” a Toyota was in victory lane Sunday at Richmond Raceway.
Denny HamlinThe win meant so much to the constructor and Joe Gibbs Racing, giving both of them a better idea of the future.
The concern was raised last month at Phoenix Raceway. The Toyotas did not lead any of the 312 laps on the track that will host the championship race in November.
Toyota had won the Phoenix playoff race from 2017 to 2019, but has not won the playoff race there since becoming the site of the championship in 2020.
“It was absolutely embarrassing,” he told NBC Sports on Sunday. “We more than missed it. We messed this up royally and made mistakes on our way to Phoenix. Knowing that the championship is obviously going to be settled in Phoenix, we had to figure out what we had done wrong, and we had to run well here.
“That, for us, more than anything, gives us a certain degree of confidence, and believe me, we feel a lot better coming back to Phoenix in the fall.”
What changed after Phoenix for Toyota?
Wilson said Toyota and his team did a better job with their simulation program and figured out how the new, larger tire reacted on the track.
“We made mistakes … in some of the work that we were doing,” Wilson told NBC Sports without revealing details. “We’ve had some a-ha moments over the past few weeks. What has translated on the circuit has given us the confidence of ‘OK, now we have a better understanding of this’, and it’s going in the right direction.
Hamlin’s win ended a 12-race winless streak for Joe Gibbs Racing. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but Gibbs had won 46 of the last 108 races (42.6%) entering this season.
“When you’ve had the level of success that we’ve had, you have expectations of yourself, and the people I work for have expectations,” Wilson said. “You become a bit of a victim of your own success. By saying that, we ticked a huge box.
Sunday marked the first time this year that JGR placed all four cars in the top 10.
Richmond helps offset some of JGR and Toyota’s early woes. This included the February race at Auto Club Speedway. Toyota designed a screen to keep debris out of the radiator, but the screen eventually got clogged with debris and caused overheating issues.
“We fought like you can’t believe because some of what we saw in the first six races shot us in the foot,” Wilson said.
“They are the hardest and most difficult to swallow. The good news is that we found some things we missed that we’re looking at now, and I think those things will help us move forward in the coming weeks.
Even with the win, that doesn’t mean Toyota has caught up with Chevrolet, which has won four of the first seven races, or even matched Ford, which has won two this year.
“In today’s NASCAR schedule, the only thing that’s hard to find is something common,” said winning crew chief Chris Gabehart. “We’re comparing Richmond to Phoenix, which any insider would tell you isn’t really a comparison. But that’s all we have to take from these days because (NASCAR has) done such a good job of diversifying the schedule so there’s no common thread.
Sunday’s race, the seventh points race of the season, marked the seventh different type of track. Next week’s race at Martinsville Speedway will be the first time the series has raced at a similarly styled track — a short track — this season, but even that is a little misleading. What is learned in Richmond will not necessarily translate to Martinsville, as these short runs vary widely.
Nor does it mean Hamlin will retain his success at Martinsville, a track at which he won five Cup victories in his career. It’s how much the Next Gen car can impact things and how much teams need to learn about the new car.
“I could see Martinsville being one of the most different races for a guy like Denny that we’ve been to,” Gabehart said. “Denny is so grounded in Martinsville through so many different types of cars over his career.
“In a Coupe car, we took 80 horsepower out of it, gave it a 2-inch wider car. It’s a 200-pound heavier car. It has a higher center of gravity and better brakes. It going to go to Martinsville in the first 10 rounds and be as lost as last year’s Easter egg.
“He was so focused on perfecting what this car was for so many years. This car is going to be very different. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for you to watch, why you see great races. But hey blood, it sure is a lot of learning for these guys.
That’s what makes Sunday’s win and Toyota’s overall performance so significant. Its drivers combined to lead 149 of the 400 laps.
“What I keep telling everyone, what I’m looking forward to the most is that I know we’re not at our best right now,” Gabehart said. “There are a lot of things internally that we need to improve. We are on the right track to do so. It’s good to win despite that, to be honest.
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Long: Toyota boss celebrates victory weeks after ‘our worst performance’ in Cup originally appeared on NBCSports.com