By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
Toyota has spent nine long years trying to notch the manufacturer’s first Daytona 500 victory in NASCAR. It wasn’t an easy road after starting their NASCAR program from scratch in 2007.
In their first Daytona 500 outing, Toyota’s highest finisher was Dale Jarrett who finished in 22nd position. Toyota’s other finishers that day were: Michael Waltrip (30th), Dave Blaney (34th), and David Reutimann (40th). It was a humbling day, but Toyota Racing Development stuck with improving their program and now in 2016, the monkey is officially off of the back.
The car maker has finally captured their first win in ‘The Great American Race’ and they did it in great style, by sweeping the top-three positions and four of the top-five overall. Toyota Racing Development’s President, David Wilson, knows how big of a win this is for his company.
“This is very difficult for me to put in words. I cannot articulate adequately what this means to Toyota,” Wilson said. “I’ll start by saying it’s our single biggest race in our company’s history. I’ll put it in front of the Indy 500, which was a pretty special one back in 2003.”
The finish of this race was incredible. Denny Hamlin nudged past his teammate Matt Kenseth on the final lap en route to victory. Martin Truex Jr. just missed out on the win by mere inches and Kyle Busch was in the thick of the battle coming across the line in third.
By winning, Hamlin snapped his own streak. Hamlin was 0-for-10 in the Daytona 500 in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. Now the driver of car No. 11, who started 11th on Sunday in his 11th attempt at winning the Daytona 500, will etch his name on the Harley J. Earl trophy next to names like Petty, Pearson, Waltrip and Earnhardt.
An emotional Hamlin described the race of his life.
“It’s the pinnacle of my career, for sure,” Hamlin said. “I haven’t got a championship yet. This is obviously the biggest win for myself. It’s just the circumstances, J.D. Gibbs, who found me about 12, 13 years ago, it’s his birthday today, he’s been so pivotal to myself and my team and supporting me for the past 11 years.”
Joe Gibbs Racing, which fields the cars for the race-winner Hamlin, also snapped a 23-year losing streak in the sport’s biggest race on Sunday.
“I think just that fact, that we worked as hard as we could work. Over the years we had great drivers and crew chiefs, but it’s so hard to put it all together and win,” car owner Joe Gibbs said. “I’m proud of Mike and Denny. Just a great effort. For them to be together this short period of time and to be able to accomplish what they have I think is an amazing story.”
Gibbs’ last taste of victory in the Daytona 500 came back in 1993, when Dale Jarrett took the organization’s No. 18 car to victory lane in their second attempt in the sport’s biggest race. It had been a long, dry spell since that day.
For those wondering, Hamlin’s crew chief, Michael Wheeler was atop the pit box in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for the first time in a points-paying race. Wheeler and Hamlin also won the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday.
For Toyota this was a landmark day. Last year, Toyota took home their first driver’s championship in the Sprint Cup Series when Kyle Busch took home the Cup after missing the first 11 races with a broken leg and foot in injuries sustained at Daytona International Speedway.
Perhaps now, with a fast stable of drivers and teams, could the manufacturer stop Chevrolet’s 13-year stranglehold of winning Sprint Cup Series Manufacturer’s Championships?
We will have to wait and see, but one thing is for sure the Toyota teams are off to a fast start in 2016.
Image: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images