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Toyota’s speed has yet to pay off in a rocky start to the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season

Toyota's speed has yet to pay off in a rocky start to the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season

A new car hasn’t meant a fresh start for Toyota in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series. A manufacturer that placed two teams in the Championship 4 last season with Joe Gibbs Racing suddenly can’t buy a break from the top three weeks, watching another potential win slip away at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” said Kyle Busch, who was in control until a late warning flag. “Not our day. See you next week.”

It’s not that simple for a group of six Camry cars that had the cards in Las Vegas but ended up bankrupt at the blackjack table. This lead was supposed to fix it; Denny Hamlin hit it big here, winning last fall and it’s a local race for Busch. Instead, he spent much of the weekend battling from behind, forced to start in the back after a practice crash destroyed his main car.

Busch needed the backup of teammate Denny Hamlin just to race on Sunday, a victim of the parts shortage that was hammering NASCAR teams with the Next Gen chassis. To their credit, all four JGR teams participated in the rebuild only to be victims of circumstances beyond their control: luck.

At the start of the race, Austin Dillon slowed ahead of Busch, causing an evasive spin that damaged the front bumper of the #18. Busch then hit the wall a few times and struggled to position himself on the track on a field walk from 37th place. He overcame it all, leading 40 of the final 47 laps and battling teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the win until wrecking Erik Jones with three laps to go.

Suddenly, Busch and Truex’s battle was fried.

“Guess we have to oppose, huh?” Truex said nervously over the radio to team leader James Small.

“Yeah,” Small said. “There are 41 laps on the tires.”

But the call for the Toyota drivers was four fresh Goodyears against Hendrick Motorsports’ two Chevrolets, leaving Busch and Truex fourth and sixth for the final restart. It was too far to give them a chance against eventual winner Alex Bowman in overtime.

It’s just the latest misstep from a band haunted by their own missteps. Hamlin killed the transaxle on Sunday after accidentally downshifting on his way to pit road; muscle memory bit it because the shifters are set up differently in the Next Gen car (shifting can actually set you back if you do it wrong). It happened after he ran over an air pipe, erasing the trail position the No.11 never regained after leading.

“We had the best car today,” said Hamlin. “I just got back and was working to get ahead and I made some mistakes.”

Now he’s leaving Las Vegas without a top-10 finish so far this year. Hamlin’s JGR teammates were at least able to recover somewhat from their problems, Truex found himself eighth after surviving a tire that left his pit and caused a mid-race penalty. Pole sitter Christopher Bell suffered from slow stops, his own tire issues and a backspin to drive his car home in 10th.

Further back, Bubba Wallace saw a top 15 wiped out when Jones’ spinning car came onto the circuit ahead of him. Sacrificing his car to the inner wall was the only way to avoid a terrifying incident for both drivers.

That left Kurt Busch, Wallace’s new teammate at 23XI Racing, as the only one to stay out of trouble, increasing his position differential throughout the season to +44 with a 13th-place finish. But how much better would Busch’s team be if they started the weekend better? Or pass the pre-race inspection at Auto Club Speedway last week? Three consecutive failures saw them start the race with a passing penalty.

It’s those little things that eat at Toyota in a year where every point counts. In a different world, rookie Austin Cindric would have missed his block at the Daytona 500 and Wallace would have won.

“What could have been, right?” Wallace said after falling inches away from that Daytona victory. “It sucks when you’re so close.”

As it stands, Wallace’s second and Busch’s fourth on Sunday are Toyota’s only two top-5 finishes. Compare that to Chevrolet’s eight, including two first wins for HMS and you can see why JGR feels behind in the Cup Series.

The only upside so far was a NASCAR Xfinity Series win on Saturday by Ty Gibbs, running his first full-time season in that division. But even that has the potential to cause chaos, with Gibbs’ natural rise to the Cup eventually forcing a driver change at JGR due to NASCAR’s four-team limit. Whichever driver among Bell, Busch, Truex and Hamlin struggles the most will be the center of rumor as summer approaches.

It’s up to TRD President David Wilson to keep this group on track. The automaker has always invested in quality, not quantity, leaving them a third the size of Ford or Chevrolet. It’s a small group navigating tricky waters with so many cars destroyed early as drivers struggle to deal with the Next Gen.

“We have to temper ourselves not to… not go over a single data point, a single racing event, because we’re dealing with so many things that are new,” Wilson said at Daytona. “We’re going to keep finding issues, challenges with this car, as excited as we are, that probably need to be fixed, and that’s okay. That’s normal…we’re going to have to be a little patient. and keep in mind that we might be working on the plane while we’ve been flying it for a little while, and that’s just the nature of the beast.”

It is now up to the pilots to maintain this same keel.