What's at Stake for Toyota in 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup?
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It will soon be seven full years since Toyota first entered the NASCAR Sprint Cup manufacturer fray.
And still no title.
You think that might be wearing on driver Matt Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team as they head into the stretch run of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup with a slim points lead over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson?
Well, not as much as it's weighing on the folks at Toyota Racing Development—the behind-the-scenes organization that has much to do with whether Kenseth can hold on to win this championship.
And they're more nervous than ever after the disaster that was Kyle Busch's race at Kansas Speedway.
Busch, of course, is Kenseth's teammate at JGR. Both drive Toyota Camry race cars.
In the race at Kansas, Busch did not drive his Camry very well. In fact, his struggles started even before the Cup race began.
He tangled with Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide race the day before the Cup event, then exchanged verbal shots with the 2012 Cup champion that left everyone wondering if it would carry over. Busch also wrecked his No. 18 Toyota on the first lap of the first Cup practice that day.
Then, he went on to be involved in three incidents during the Hollywood Casino 400.
His day—and likely his own hopes for that elusive first Cup title—finally ended in a three-car wreck on Lap 200 of the 267-lap race.
Busch went into the race third in the standings, 12 points behind Kenseth, and came out in fifth, 35 points behind with one fewer race remaining to make up the difference.
When will Toyota finally win its first Chase for the Sprint Cup?
Busch blamed the race track, the Goodyear tires and maybe even his own grandmother, for all his troubles, telling AutoWeek.com and other media outlets that, among other things, Kansas Speedway and the Goodyear tires were both "the worst" he's ever driven on.
He did not mention Toyota, but he has in the past when faulty parts and failing engines designed by or entirely supplied by TRD scuttled his Chase chances.
This was supposed to be the year when Toyota put all that to rest.
Instead, Busch's massive Kansas failure puts all of Toyota's eggs squarely in Kenseth's basket for the remainder of this Chase and has rekindled some old doubts.
Here is the deal: Sure, Kenseth desperately wants to win a championship. But he has one already, having won the last non-Chase title in 2003.
Same with JGR. They really, really want this title. But they have three.
Bobby Labonte won in 2000 for the organization while driving a Pontiac, and that was followed by two Tony Stewart championships (in 2002 in a Pontiac and in 2005 while driving a Chevrolet).
So Kenseth and JGR already have proven they can get it done in NASCAR's top national touring series.
Despite all the hype when Toyota made the jump nearly seven years ago, the manufacturer is still seeking its first Cup trophy.
That's why the TRD executives are sweating out this Chase. They may be thrilled to have a race car that is leading at the moment, but can you imagine the fallout another untimely parts or engine failure might have if it costs Kenseth the championship?
At best, it's just another in a string of stock-car racing embarrassments of late connected to the manufacturer—which could not have been pleased with the fallout from penalties suffered by Toyota-backed Michael Waltrip Racing in the wake of SpinGate at the end of the regular season.
The alleged intentional spin by MWR driver Clint Bowyer cost more than an extra spot for Toyota in the Chase when Martin Truex Jr. was booted as a result.
It ultimately cost MWR what NASCAR sources say is an estimated $36 million or more in sponsorship money when primary sponsor NAPA pulled out of the last two years of its deal on the Truex-driven car.
If those NAPA dollars end up going to another NASCAR team backed by Chevy or Ford, Toyota will not be pleased.
At worst, a Kenseth failure to lock down this championship might get Joe Gibbs Racing to rethink its decision to leave Chevy and align with Toyota back in 2007, as well as their more recent decision just last year to extend that agreement.
If history has proven anything, it's that a top-notch organization such as JGR will attract offers from all manufacturers in the sport (and maybe even one or two out of it) next time such a decision needs to be made.
With Michael Waltrip Racing suddenly thrown into a bit of disarray heading into next season, just when it had appeared MWR had taken a mighty leap forward, JGR is really all Toyota has left as far as a sure deal when it comes to handicapping championship-contending organizations for the immediate future.
Even if Kenseth's No. 20 JGR team avoids the types of calamities that have befallen Toyota drivers in the Chase in the past, it's quite possible Johnson and his No. 48 Chevy team from Hendrick Motorsports will simply outrace them for the title.
In fact, most folks in and around the garage seem to be treating Johnson like the odds-on favorite right now.
The oddsmakers in Vegas certainly have according to SportingNews.com, installing Johnson as the favorite over Kenseth to win the Chase heading into the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The fact of the matter is that unique circumstances have conspired to put Toyota in a gut-wrenching quandary heading into these final six Chase races. The manufacturer now appears to have more to lose by not winning the title than it has to gain by actually capturing it.
Unless otherwise attributed, all information was obtained first-hand by the writer.
Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz
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