Why Have Toyota Cars Been Underperforming in 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season?

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Why Have Toyota Cars Been Underperforming in 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season?
USA TODAY Sports
Matt Kenseth isn't the only Toyota driver who is feeling frustrated after the first nine races of the 2014 season.

Typically, two's company and three's a crowd.

But if we're talking NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, "three" has definitely been crowded out thus far this season.

In the first nine races of 2014, Chevrolet and Ford have each won four events.

The third major automobile manufacturer in the sport, Toyota, has managed just one visit to Victory Lane (Kyle Busch, Fontana).

Heck, a Toyota couldn't even win in its namesake race, last week's Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond. That distinction went to a Ford, driven by Joey Logano—who ironically enough used to drive a Toyota before he moved from Joe Gibbs Racing to Team Penske last year.

And heading into Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, Toyota's chances don't look good to improve much.

Will Toyota be able to turn around its struggles this Sunday at Talladega?

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Back in its heyday—yes, I know the company has only been in Sprint Cup since 2007—Toyota won both races at Talladega in 2008 (Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart).

But in the 10 races since then at NASCAR's largest oval, Chevy has won six, Ford three and Dodge, which left the sport after Brad Keselowski won the Cup championship in 2012, has one (by Keselowski in the spring of what would be his title year).

Toyota? Zero.

Let's go back to the overall season in 2014 thus far, where the true tale of Toyota's struggles can be seen in the first nine races that have been contested:

* Denny Hamlin's second-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 is the ONLY runner-up finish Toyota has had to date this season.

* In addition to Hamlin's runner-up at Daytona and Busch's win at Fontana, Toyota has managed just six other top-five finishes. Translated, in 45 potential top-five showings across the first nine races, only eight of those showings has been by a Toyota.

* Forget top-fives; Toyota managed to garner just one top-10 finish at both Phoenix (ninth place) and Las Vegas (10th).

* Matt Kenseth, who had two wins at this point en route to a series-leading seven wins last season, doesn't even have one win in 2014. Neither do Brian Vickers, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin.

Jerry Markland/Getty Images
Denny Hamlin is at a loss to explain why Toyota overall has had limited success thus far in 2014.

* As recently as last season, Toyota was nearly as dominant as Chevrolet. To wit: Chevy led all three manufacturers with 16 Cup wins in 2013, Toyota had 14 and Ford just six.

* While there are three Toyota drivers in the top 10 in the Sprint Cup standings—including second-ranked Kenseth and fourth-ranked Busch—and two others in the top 20, no one has really had a breakout race or gone on an extended winning or top-five streak.

How has a manufacturer that looked so strong last season start off 2014 with just one visit to victory lane (when it had a collective four wins in the first nine races of 2013)?

There have been no significant changes mechanically to the Camry this season, so that's not a reason. Had this been last season with Toyota having just one win at this time, you could have placed the blame on the then-new Generation 6 car.

But Toyota actually equaled Chevrolet in early-season success with the Gen 6, each winning four of the first nine races in 2013.

And you can't say that Kenseth, Hamlin, Busch, Vickers and Bowyer have forgotten how to drive—or win, for that matter.

If anyone can come up with a logical reason for why the Camry has struggled this season, please call or email Toyota Racing Development's office in California. I'm sure they'd love to hear your thoughts.

But short of that, there is some optimism of sorts heading into Talladega. Let's go back to that stat we mentioned earlier: top-five finishes.

From the season opener at Daytona through the sixth race (Martinsville), Toyota managed a total of just three top-five finishes (including Busch's win at Fontana).

But in the last three races, Toyota has definitely stepped up its game from a finishing standpoint.

At Texas, four Camrys finished in the top 10, including two in the top five.

At Darlington, two Camrys were in the top 10, with one in the top five.

And last Saturday at Richmond, two Toyotas wound up in the top five.

That's five top-five finishes in the last three races versus three top-fives in the first six.

Hey, if nothing else, it's a sign of progress in a season that has been filled with far too many unanswered questions and far too little success.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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