Toyota Troubles at Road Courses Signals Disaster at a Crucial Point in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs

The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season has been an up-and-down affair for the six full-time Toyota teams. Sunday’s performances at Sonoma Raceway was perhaps the deepest valley yet, and that could portend big trouble come the NASCAR Playoffs.

The four Joe Gibbs Racing teams and two 23XI Racing cars that make up the Toyota contingent in the Cup Series all finished 18th or worse Sunday at Sonoma, with Kurt Busch leading the way in 18th. That was the worst collective showing for the manufacturer since the November 2007 race at Phoenix Raceway.

For some perspective on how long ago that was, Jimmie Johnson won the race en route to just his second of seven championships, J.J. Yeley finished 14th in the No. 18 Interstate Batteries car for JGR, and both Bill Elliott and Ricky Rudd still raced more than half of the season. The highest-finishing Toyota was the No. 83 Red Bull Racing car that Brian Vickers piloted.

Toyota has had trouble adapting to road courses with NASCAR Next Gen car

Toyota inflatable letters at the NASCAR Cup Series race at Sonoma Raceway
Inflatable letters spell Toyota before the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 on June 12, 2022 | Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Toyota has won 166 races since then, the fifth-most of any manufacturer in the sport’s history. However, NASCAR provided a new wrinkle for teams in 2022 with the debut of the Next Gen car model that has taken all teams time to learn, but none more so than the Toyota teams on road courses.

Along with the poor showing at Sonoma, Toyota cars struggled overall in the only other road-course race of the season to date. JGR teammates Christopher Bell (3rd) and Martin Truex Jr. (7th) recorded top-10 results in March at the Circuit of the Americas, but the next highest-finishing Toyota was Denny Hamlin in 18th.

Sure, Toyota and all Cup Series teams will be able to continue to learn what makes the Next Gen car work best on road courses, with three more such tracks still on the regular-season schedule. 

Also, half of the six full-time Toyota drivers already have a win this season and currently hold a spot in the NASCAR Playoffs standings. That gives them a cushion in case their performances at Road America, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, and Watkins Glen International are no better than they have been at the first two road-course facilities.

Truex Jr., Bell, and Bubba Wallace will likely still have to find a win somewhere in the final 10 regular-season races, but the last road-course event of the year looms large for all Toyota teams if they continue to struggle on tracks that contain both left and right turns.

Charlotte Roval could ruin title hopes for Toyota drivers

The last road course on the schedule and the only one in the playoffs is the Charlotte Roval, which features a course that runs through both the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield and portions of the traditional oval track.

Truex Jr. nearly won the inaugural Roval race in 2018 until a last-lap crash with Johnson gave Ryan Blaney the victory, but Toyota has a combined three top-fives through the first four Roval races.

The timing of the Roval race on the schedule also poses a serious issue. The event is the cutoff race of the Round of 12, so only six spots will be available if two different drivers win the first two races of the round at Texas Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, respectively.

That could put a lot of pressure on Toyota teams that have not performed well historically at the Roval or on either of the road courses the series has visited so far this season.

The Roval race might cause more anxiety for the drivers at JGR and 23XI than even the semifinal race three weeks later at Martinsville Speedway that will determine the Championship 4 who will have a chance to race for the title on the first Sunday of November at Phoenix Raceway.

The championship might not even be possible for a Toyota team at that point if the manufacturer and its teams can’t figure out what works for the Next Gen car through the three remaining road courses on the regular-season schedule.

All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.

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