Toyota drivers carry optimism, aim to find rhythm at Richmond

Toyota drivers carry optimism, aim to find rhythm at Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. — There’s optimism brewing in the Toyota camp for Sunday night’s NASCAR Cup Series event at Richmond Raceway (7 ET, FOX, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), and with a race name like Toyota Owners 400, why wouldn’t there be? Recent ownership of Victory Lane real estate at the 0.75-mile oval, however, has been fleeting.

The last three Richmond winners have been Chris Buescher in a Ford (August 2023), Kyle Larson in a Chevrolet (April 2023) and Kevin Harvick in his final Cup Series victory with a Ford (July 2022). Strong showings in the last three races this season, however, have the automaker’s drivers bullish on reversing that trend.

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“I’m excited for this race. All week I’ve been excited to get here and kind of see where we stack up,” said Denny Hamlin, driver of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 Toyota and a four-time Richmond winner in his homestate stomping grounds. “Certainly, with the history we have here over the last three or four races here at Richmond, being in contention, I feel pretty strongly about it. I would say that this is one that historically that I’ve always been good at, JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) has always been really good at, and then with the momentum it seems like our cars have, and our manufacturer — hopefully, we can tack on that little extra speed that we’ve shown here lately.”

Hamlin’s nod to history acknowledges just how successful his Joe Gibbs Racing team has been at Richmond. The organization has 18 wins here — the most of any track — and the most recent of those was Hamlin’s victory in the springtime event in 2022. JGR also has completed single-season sweeps of both Cup Series races at Richmond five times since 2009.

“I just like driving for JGR here,” said Christopher Bell, a three-time Richmond winner in Xfinity Series competition looking for his first Cup win here. “Their résumé speaks for itself, and the cars are super, super fast. This is arguably JGR’s best race track and so I just love going to race tracks where I know I’m going to have a shot at it.”

Fellow Toyota team 23XI Racing has shown indications of adding to those performance plusses and driving a wedge into Chevy’s top-four sweep of Saturday’s pole qualifying. 23XI’s Tyler Reddick led 81 laps in the Cup circuit’s most recent race at Richmond, and teammate Bubba Wallace led 80.

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This season, the speed from Toyota’s new Camry XSE model for Cup Series competition has been a positive. Toyota drivers have won two of the last three Cup events; the one race they didn’t win — last weekend at Circuit of The Americas — Toyotas were second, third and fifth behind William Byron’s victorious Chevrolet.

That optimism from recent runs also has hopes riding high for another Virginia short track next weekend — Sunday, April 7 at Martinsville Speedway — and beyond.

“Denny said the next five weeks, there’s no reason why Toyota shouldn’t be in Victory Lane. So, make sure it’s one of ours,” Wallace said. “So I think that’s enough motivation to go out and get the job done. We learned a lot here in the fall, got behind on a little bit of strategy, but I think it’s a new opportunity for us. We’re really invested on what we need to do for this weekend and excited to get on track here.”

Toyota drivers occupy three of the top four places in the current Cup Series standings and five of the top 10. Atop that list is Martin Truex Jr., a three-time Richmond winner and the only driver who has completed every lap in the six races so far this season.

“It’s a good step, I guess, but we’d rather be winning. I’d give you one lead-lap finish back for a win,” Truex said after Saturday’s seventh-place qualifying run. “It’s been good, though. It’s been good and consistent. Our cars have been fast, we haven’t quite capitalized yet. Even last week (at COTA), we finished 10th and felt like we would have been better without some issues. So, it’s just been a grind-out year so far, but our cars have been fast. So we just need to capitalize and clean some things up and keep trying to find more speed.”