It’s safe to say that Ford Racing is back. Trevor Bayne, Carl Edwards and most recently Matt Kenseth, each have made a trip to victory lane just seven races into the year. That is three times that Ford has won already, which, believe it or not, is just one victory short of their entire total from last year. Whether a fan of the Blue Oval or not, it is a feel-good story to see one of NASCAR’s longtime manufacturers back in contention.
As is usually the case when a driver, or team in this instance, rebounds from tough times, it is at another driver or team’s expense. It is odd saying this now because they were a joke their first year in the Sprint Cup Series, but Toyota has been hurt most by Ford’s resurgence. Sure, Toyota driver Kyle Busch has looked impressive so far and has already won at Bristol. In fact, if you are a firm believer in the laps led category, such as me, Busch has been the most competitive driver this year with 481 circuits led. That, however, has been Toyota’s only bright spot for 2011.
Teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano have been the biggest disappointments out of the Toyota camp. Hamlin, who came so close to winning the title last year after claiming eight wins, is still looking for his first top-five result. Engines woes and untimely accidents have been a major factor, but it is also obvious at this point he is not running where he should be.
Yes, he got off to a slow start last year as well, but there was potential in 2010 that has not been seen so far this season. Texas and Martinsville, both tracks Hamlin swept last year, were two of his better runs so far, but poor fuel mileage at Martinsville cost him a top 10 and their Texas run demonstrated the No. 11 team is behind the competition.
While Hamlin is off to a rough start, it’s been worse for Logano, who has yet to finish in the top 10. Like Hamlin, the 2009 Rookie of the Year has had some tough luck so far, but when he has avoided trouble, Logano hasn’t been competitive. His 13th-place finish at Martinsville was his only top 20 of the year. Logano has certainly struggled since becoming a Cup driver, but he looked to have turned things around late last year with five consecutive top-10 finishes. In 2011, all progress has been halted. Sliced Bread sits 27th in the standings and with the way things have been going, any chance at the Chase will have to wait until next year.
Toyota’s problems haven’t been limited to Joe Gibbs Racing either. Red Bull Racing has dealt with its share of mechanical problems and inconsistent runs as well, even though on the surface it looks like RBR has actually improved over last year.
When you factor in that Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne accounted for most of the team’s top 10s in limited races the previous year, however, it is evident their struggles in 2010 were from a driver standpoint. They have shown flashes of potential this year, but nothing consistent enough to be a Chase threat – something both drivers were just two seasons ago (for Vickers, it was in the Red Bull Toyota).
Red Bull still has work to do and Texas proved it. Both Kahne and Vickers were not even close to being competitive, which is a real concern considering this is the type of track this team used to excel at. The mile and a half tracks are the most common ones the circuit and if they struggle there, it will be a long season. Between JGR and RBR, Toyota is clearly off the pace.
Yet, it doesn’t end there. Toyota’s startup team, Michael Waltrip Racing, has been the worst of all. The driver who they call the Franchise, David Reutimann, has had anything but a franchise type of year. Last season he got off to a bad start, but he was at least having solid runs before circumstances beyond his control eliminated him from good finishes. So far in 2011 he hasn’t even sniffed the front of the pack. Unlike some of the other Toyota drivers, Reutimann can’t use bad luck as an excuse for some of his finishes – he and the No. 00 team have simply been a middle of the pack group so far.
It’s an unfortunate time for this to happen as he really came on strong the second half of last year – including a victory at Chicago – and looked poised to be a Chase contender for 2011. Teammate Martin Truex Jr. has actually been very strong this year – in the first half of races. For whatever reason, this team has faded big time in the second portion of several events, most notably Bristol and Fontana. Neither of the MWR drivers are off to the start they want, and it doesn’t look like things will improve any time soon either.
Ford is back to the front and Toyota is back to the rear. Obviously, that may be a bit harsh for the Japanese manufacturer considering Busch’s early season strength. But for other drivers such as Hamlin, Logano and Reutimann, who were all at their strongest at the end of last year, to be struggling the way they are is definitely a cause for concern for the Toyotas.
Then again, in a way, it might be taken as a good sign. After their first year in 2007, which produced hardly anything, a season like this would be considered pretty good. With the huge leaps they made from 2008-2010 – from JGR switching over from Chevy, to the gains MWR and RBR had made, Toyota had high hopes to be the top manufacturer this season.
Unfortunately for them, the Ford renaissance led by Edwards is going to make it much more difficult, as Toyota currently sits third in the manufacturer standings (which might as well be last considering Dodge has only three cars running every race). It’s still early in the year, but Toyota looks to have taken a step back, not forward, much to Ford’s delight.
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