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Without a late-race caution at Las Vegas, Toyota would have likely walked away with a 1-2 finish that day. But other than that, the manufacturer has struggled to keep up with the competition this year.
Toyota has no victories this season and only three of their six drivers are currently in the playoffs. Martin Truex Jr. is the highest, and he is only seventh in the regular season standings. His seventh-place finish at COTA was the 2021 NCS championship runner-up’s best result of the year so far.
Needing more track time
So what’s behind Toyota’s lack of pace?
“There is a lot that goes into it,” explained Truex. “One of the biggest things for us has been not showing up on weekends close enough. Not a lot of people I think have talked about the schedule, but 15 minutes of practice, literally impound racing, you can’t change springs and major setup components during practice, so basically what you show up with you fine tune with wedge and shock clicks and small adjustments and then you go racing.
“Really if you are off, you are off. I think for us that’s a big thing. We’re sim racing right now. We’ve been behind throughout testing, and I feel like that has definitely hurt us, so we are definitely searching and at this point doing some testing.”
Denny Hamlin, who led the way in points for much of the regular season last year, sits down in 22nd and has yet to score a top-ten finish. It’s the deepest he has ever gone into a season without a top-ten. Just one year ago, he was inside the top-five in five of the first six races to start the 2021 season.
He believes that the area where Toyota needs fixing is simply “everywhere.”
“That’s what we say on Mondays,” he continued. “I’m not sure honestly. It’s just a little bit everywhere honestly. It just takes time learning a lot of different new things. There were some setbacks with our testing car. There was a big crash in Texas last year with it and it set us back with some data and whatnot that maybe has an effect in it, but we’re trying to get our cars driving better and going faster.”
However, it’s not time to be concerned yet for the No. 11 team. As everyone continues to gather data and further understand the new car, the points standings will shift dramatically. There are few drivers who are up front consistently every single race weekend, a point Hamlin was quick to make.
“I think you can catapult up the standings really, really quickly – the way things are,” said Hamlin. “Other kind of short of Ross (Chastain) who has been really good the last three or four weeks, everyone – their finishes are bouncing around all over the place. If you have a couple solid weeks where we don’t get crashed or cause a crash, those things add up. We’re not happy with where our speed is at, for sure, but certainly we are not a 22nd-place team and am I worried about making the Playoffs, if that is what you are asking, no.”
Finding their footing at Richmond?
Richmond could be a big weekend for Toyota. Kyle Busch has more wins than any other active driver there with six. Both Hamlin and Truex have three wins each, while Kurt Busch has two victories at the Virginia short track.
“I think we have high expectations,” Truex said of Richmond. “We have a lot of people at JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) that understand the track and understand what it takes to win here, but obviously this is a whole different deal now. I think for us this season – the short season it has been so far – is whatever you think you knew and the way you thought about these tracks before and the way you approach these things – just forget about it, because this is a whole new ballgame with this car and everything, we are doing this year. Forget everything you knew in the past and focus on what it takes to make this thing go, which we are still trying to figure out. Hopefully, we can make some steps in the right direction.
“Obviously, it’s been a great track for us, driver wise as well. You just try to use what we know about it and apply it to practice this morning and throughout the weekend.”
Hamlin describes his mood as “anxious” ahead of what has historically been a great race track for Toyota drivers as they look to see who, if any of them got the setup right.
“It’s more just kind of anxious for me because I run the simulator and what not. I run this guy’s setup and that guy’s setup and they are on different planets and I’m like somebody’s right and somebody’s wrong. We will know within two laps – are we in the ballpark or not? The tough part is – like he said – is you are kind of locked in springs and whatnot, so your adjustments are somewhat limited when you get here. It’s almost like a COVID schedule, only you just get some laps with your car, and you can fine tune it or tweak it, so if you are way off you just can’t really wholesale it like you used to. For me, I’m anxious to see after lap two, did we guess right?”
In qualifying at Richmond, Toyota put three drivers into the final round with Kyle Busch placing third, Truex seventh, and Bell ninth. Hamlin will start 13th with the 23XI Racing drivers trailing behind JGR in 27th (Kurt Busch) and 29th (Bubba Wallace).