Toyota makes championship statement with Phoenix domination

In each of the four years the NASCAR Cup series championship has been contested at Phoenix Raceway, at least one Toyota driver has been included. But none of those drivers finished higher than third in the final championship standings.

“It’s completely unacceptable that we have yet to win a championship in Phoenix,” TRD president David Wilson said over the winter. “I can go back and make excuses, but the buck stops here (and) it stops with our team partners and we, bottom line, haven’t gotten the job done.

“Our focus is Phoenix, and we all put so much emphasis on that.”

Toyota had five drivers lead Sunday’s race in a dominating showing for the manufacturer with 298 of 312 laps led. Christopher Bell went to victory lane, which was Toyota’s first win at the track since the spring of 2021 with Martin Truex Jr. However that race was the last year of the sixth-generation race car at the track. and since NASCAR rolled out Next Gen in 2022, it’s been even tougher sledding for the Toyota teams. In the previous four races at Phoenix, Toyota drivers had combined to lead just 15 laps.


“It’s no secret that Phoenix has been a little bit of a struggle for us,” Bell said after winning the Shriners Children’s 500. “After that first year of Next Gen, myself and Adam (Stevens, crew chief), we really sat down and said that Phoenix needs to be a focus point because I didn’t feel very good there the first two races in 2022 and then in 2023, we were a little better each time and today was lights out so today is a great day for the company.”

Denny Hamlin started the weekend by winning the pole and admitting Phoenix has been his weakest oval racetrack. Like his teammate Bell, Hamlin said he and his No. 11 group has been working on improving at Phoenix.

Toyota’s last fall win at Phoenix came in 2019, when it wasn’t the championship race. Lesley Ann Miller/Motorsport Images

Hamlin won the fall race at Phoenix Raceway in 2019 to qualify for the championship race a week later at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A year later, Phoenix started hosting the championship race. Hamlin made the Championship 4 in 2020 and 2021.

Looking back at Hamlin’s comments after those races, where he finished fourth (2020) and third (2021) in the final standings, brings to light how the pendulum was swinging away from Toyota’s direction. The short-track package wasn’t as strong for the Gibbs group in 2020, and Hamlin knew that things needed to fall perfectly for him in the finale. In 2021, it came down to an untimely final caution that sent the contenders down pit road one last time, where Kyle Larson’s team prevailed to get him out front.

But in hindsight, Hamlin and his camp knew it would be an uphill battle even going into the races. Hamlin later recalled a conversation on the plane to Phoenix during one of those championship seasons where Joe Gibbs Racing knew, given where they stacked up at Phoenix, they were long shots to win the title.

Hamlin led 68 laps on Sunday. Tyler Reddick also led 68 laps. Bell led 50 after taking the lead for the final time from Martin Truex Jr., who led 55. Ty Gibbs, who got the jump on Hamlin at the start of the race, led the first 57 laps.

Reddick won the first stage and Bell won the second stage. From start to finish at Phoenix, it was a day for Toyota.

Wilson’s tone afterwards was much different, with a hint of relief, from the last time he spoke about Phoenix Raceway.

“For Toyota, this was a momentous win,” Wilson said. “This was the first win with our new Camry body. I was clear to say at the beginning of the year that we have struggled here recently. I didn’t realize this statistic until it was brought to my attention, but in the four previous Phoenix races, Toyota led a combined 15 laps.

“(Sunday) we led everything but 14 laps. That’s a credit to the Joe Gibbs organization, TRD USA, Calty Design, who helped us with this new Camry body. At the same time, I will say that the secret to longevity in sports, in motorsports, is never get too high when the day goes your way, and never get too low when it doesn’t because we’re going to be racing again next week. Phoenix will be in our rearview mirror.”

Toyota deserves its due for the work that went into making a statement with Sunday’s performance. But as Wilson also advised, it’s just a start in the right direction and the series is going to evolve between now and the championship race in November. For the teams who couldn’t keep up with the Toyota drivers Sunday, plenty of racing is left to evolve and hone in on the short-track package.

If a Toyota driver makes it to Phoenix in the fall for the fifth consecutive year with a shot at the championship, there should be no overreacting to what that means based on the spring race. But there is no denying Toyota laid down the gauntlet of what the field is aiming for and should feel pretty good about having a much better notebook to build on for the race that really matters.

Story originally appeared on Racer