Toyota shoots for first Sprint Cup title

jutter@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 30, 2014 

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    Toyota-supported 2014 Sprint Cup team

    No.Driver(s)Cew chiefteam
    11Denny HamlinDarian GrubbJoe Gibbs Racing
    15Clint BowyerBrian PattieMichael Waltrip Racing
    18Kyle BuschDave RogersJoe Gibbs Racing
    20Matt KensethJason RatcliffJoe Gibbs Racing
    55Brian VickersBilly ScottMichael Waltrip Racing
    66Jeff Burton/Michael WaltripTBAMichael Waltrip Racing

— This is the second of a three-part look previewing the manufacturer-supported entries in the Sprint Cup Series.

Toyota has won just about everything there is to win in NASCAR’s three national series, but not the Sprint Cup title.

The manufacturer did come about as close as it could in 2013 without claiming a championship.

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth slugged it out toe-to-toe with Jimmie Johnson, but Johnson eventually claimed his sixth championship by 19 points.

Five full-time Toyota teams will compete for the 2014 title, down from last year as Michael Waltip Racing drops one to a partial schedule after losing longtime sponsor NAPA.

Denny Hamlin, who missed several races early in the season with a back injury, ended 2013 with a victory at Homestead, Fla., providing some momentum to join teammates Kyle Busch and Kenseth in the Chase this year.

Brian Vickers won a race last season while running a partial schedule with MWR and returns full time to the series for the first time since 2011.

Although Clint Bowyer did not win a race last year, he did make the Chase for the second consecutive season.

Toyota executives remain excited about their 2014 prospects.

“It’s hard to believe, but we just completed our 10th season participating in NASCAR and there are many great accomplishments we can look back on from the last decade,” said David Wilson, president and general manager of TRD, U.S.A.

“Together with our team partners, we’ll strive for some new achievements this season – the first Sprint Cup championship for Toyota and a manufacturer’s title in the series as well.”

Q&A with Kyle Busch

Q. Is there any part of the season that you like better than others? Is there any part that gives you more energy coming in?

A. I would admit that the beginning of the season is always just – you’re sort of the freshest. It’s a lot easier to come out of the gate and feel revived and refreshed and ready to go and tackle a whole new season. It’s a fresh start. You’re not behind in any points. Essentially you just look to try to build as big of a margin of cushion as you can to start instead of having to be at the end of the season and come from behind.

I think the first five races don’t really mean a whole lot. It’s more about learning your team, getting a chemistry going, whether you have a new car or just the new chemistry within your team, and just being able to put your building blocks together in the first five weeks.

Q. How soon will you be able to tell where Joe Gibbs Racing is this season? As a competitor, do you know until you kind of get into the season?

A. We were essentially a 10th-place organization when we were there during that Charlotte test in December. It was interesting for sure with the new rules and everything the way they are. We learned quite a bit of just what’s going on with our stuff and our equipment and what we need to try to work on continually from that test until we get to say Phoenix or California or Vegas.

You definitely work through the first five races, you kind of try different things, you experiment a bit, and you kind of pick a package that you want to attack with and you go down that path, and that’s the path you need to stick with. I think it’s been – I wouldn’t say more controlled – but I would say it’s just been more uniform the last two or three years with all of the crew chiefs that we now have on board and the way that they work together.

Q. You had some bad days hurt you in the Chase last year. How do you overcome that?

A. You’ve still got to win in the final 10 races to be able to make up for bad days. But it’s not really going to help you a whole lot if you’ve got Jimmie Johnson, who’s going to win two or three Chase races and finish consistently. You’re just not going to be able to overcome that. There’re a lot of teams out here that look at ourselves in the mirror and wonder why we can’t do what they do. Yet, we’ve got to try, and this is a whole new season.

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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