Toyota relying on quality, not quantity in NASCAR Cup Series

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 09: Erik Jones, driver of the #20 DEWALT Toyota, talks with team owner, Joe Gibbs on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 09, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

One only needs to take a quick mental inventory of the 19 race trophies and big shiny championship hardware that Joe Gibbs Racing organization earned in 2019 to see the realized potential of Toyota in the NASCAR Cup Series.

It remains great motivation in 2020 for Toyota teams that represent a smaller group of drivers than the Cup Series’ other two car manufacturers but have certainly proven themselves up for the challenge.

Quality over quantity has served Toyota well.

Not only did Toyota have three drivers in the four-driver championship finale field, it won the manufacturer’s title before the last green flag of 2019 even flew.

“I’ll start by saying that the hardest thing in pro sports is to stay up there because there’s so many obviously great teams, competitors and so for our team, like tomorrow (Daytona 500), we’ll be the smallest group out there and so we really need to work together,” Gibbs said of Toyota’s efforts. “It’s a huge deal for us.

“Last year was phenomenal. I have learned that for sure, in pro sports, when you start the next year, last year didn’t buy you anything and so we’re going to be going after it as hard as we can. It was a thrill last year, but we realize the challenge in front of us.”

Not only is Gibbs’ driver Kyle Busch the reigning series champion, but teammate Denny Hamlin is the defending Daytona 500 winner – giving Toyota plenty of good feelings heading into Sunday’s race and into the season. Their teammate, Martin Truex Jr., won the 2017 championship. And the fourth JGR teammate, Erik Jones, earned his first Cup victory at Daytona in the 2018 summer race and then won the exhibition Busch Clash race here last weekend.

Leavine Family Racing has a new driver behind the wheel of its No. 95 Toyota – highly-touted rookie Christopher Bell, who put up an impressive eight NASCAR Xfinity Series wins in 2019 – he won 15 races in just the last two seasons. And the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, Daniel Suarez, will drive a third Toyota team car, the No. 96 Gaunt Bros. Racing Toyota Camry—although an accident in Thursday’s 150-mile Duel qualifying race eliminated him from this year’s Daytona 500 field.

The three teams represent different levels of Toyota involvement—from long-time success of Gibbs to Leavine, who has fielded Toyotas for three years now, and the newcomer, Gaunt.

“We have gradually progressed and last year with Toyota and TRD and Coach Gibbs, we raised our level with Matt (DiBenedetto) driving the car (in 2019) and this year we feel like we’ve done it again,” Leavine said. “So, you know, expectations I don’t like to put out there, but yeah, we do have higher expectations and it’s enjoyable.”