Race Weekend Central

Why Toyota Has a Youth Problem — & Chevrolet Is Capitalizing on It

It may be hard to believe, but Toyota has been a manufacturer in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for over a decade. Veteran drivers including Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. have made Toyota a consistently winning manufacturer.

However, as NASCAR continues to look toward the future by marketing itself on young drivers, Toyota looks to be stuck in a predicament: finding rides for all of its young drivers.

In 2019, the only team in the Cup Series to have full manufacturer support from Toyota will be the four-car team of Joe Gibbs Racing, along with the satellite single-car team of Leavine Family Racing. That’s right, Toyota will have just five supported full-time teams. The team’s Cup drivers will be veterans Busch, Hamlin and likely Truex, joined by young up-and-comers Erik Jones and Matt DiBenedetto.

That’s it. As young drivers such as William Byron and Bubba Wallace continue to pour into the Cup Series, Toyota drivers are being caught in a small and nearly impassible funnel to the Cup series.

The more disturbing part of the problem is that Toyota has invested the most out of any manufacturer into drivers in the series. Toyota’s current full-time XFINITY and Camping World Truck series drivers Christopher BellBrandon Jones and Todd Gilliland do not have a clear road to the Cup Series, while Chevrolet counterparts such as Daniel Hemric and Ross Chastain have found their way to Cup.

Meanwhile, Toyota has put several talented drivers, most of whom are under the age of 22, in various rides this season, even though there aren’t clear paths for them upward at the moment. Kyle Benjamin, Harrison Burton, Christian Eckes, Riley Herbst, Spencer Davis, Logan Seavey, Chris Eggleston, Zane Smith and Tyler Ankrum have all found Toyota seat time in the Truck or XFINITY series this season.

If that sounds like a lot, then don’t look now, but young Toyota regional series drivers including Derek Kraus, Hailie Deegan, Anthony Alfredo, Cole Rouse, Chandler Smith, Natalie Decker and Eddie Fatscher could also be on there way soon.

Even within its dirt racing program, Toyota is finding issues. Toyota dirt drivers who have successfully made the transition to asphalt racing are not sticking with them. Kyle Larson once had a strong allegiance with Toyota but has found himself racing Chevrolets on Sundays. Tanner Thorson and Tyler Dippel are also racing Chevrolets in the Truck Series.

As Toyota continues to feed young drivers through its program, the Cup Series has become an unattainable summit for many of their drivers should they stay with the organization. With only five Cup teams and limited XFINITY opportunities, where will all these Toyota drivers end up? Ryan Preece, William Byron and Noah Gragson have ended up with other manufacturers, while Daniel Suarez is looking for a ride.

Looking at other manufacturers, Ford’s development program is quite small compared to Toyota. With only a few drivers in its XFINITY and Truck programs, Ford has made it easier for younger talented drivers to get more experience and have a legitimate chance to get to Cup. However, Ford does not need to rush anyone up to Cup. Young Ford drivers Chase Briscoe, Ty Majeski, Austin Cindric, Ben Rhodes and Myatt Snider gaining valuable experience in the lower series. By keeping its lineup small, there has been reduced pressure for these drivers compared to the Toyotas. This has allowed them to take time developing their skills that they might need one day for the Cup Series.

Chevrolet has a much larger lineup in the secondary circuits, but it has a vast array of rides across all three series, unlike the Ford and Toyota programs. Chevrolet drivers have much more opportunities to move around within the manufacturer. XFINITY drivers John Hunter Nemechek and Tyler Reddick are rumored to be moving to other teams next year but would still be staying in the Chevrolet umbrella should they move to those rumored teams.

Meanwhile, Toyota is bursting at the seams with young talent, with not enough rides to go around. Toyota has invested so much in young racers, it is starting to come back to bite it. Toyota has to face that other manufacturers are reaping the benefits, signing developed drivers that came through the Toyota system.

It is apparent that Toyota may need to change its approach. Because Toyota, like Ford, has limited seats across all three NASCAR touring series, it needs to downsize its program.

Toyota might want to take a page out of the Ford program, though, investing in a handful of truly talented drivers who can gradually work their way up in the system. This way, the manufacturer might not find itself in a predicament with a backlog of young and talented drivers with nowhere to go but to Toyota’s rivals.

About the author

Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.

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Funny how Chevrolet’s “we don’t develop driving talent, that’s up to the teams” philosophy seems to be working. Except, who gets first pick at the talent? You don’t find Erik Jones unless you look. I think the biggest loss will be if they can’t place Christopher Bell. A perfect fit for Ganassi, Bell is bought off for a year, but certainly not 2 (which is when Hamlin will get booted from another JGR ride). Kurt will get a one year contract and we’ll see if Chip and Chevy money can lure away Bell. Leavine will not be an easy team to upgrade. I don’t see that situation getting good enough for a driver of Bell’s caliber in one season. With Chevrolet finally looking competitive again, timing may force Toyota to pass on Bell to keep Guilliland who still looks like he needs another 2 years of seasoning. But regardless, I wouldn’t stock up on Denny Hamlin T shirts.

Tom Nasella

It’s my belief that Toyota will continue to lose upcoming drivers at the Cup level because I don’t think there will ever be the number of teams running Toyotas as there will be running Fords and Chevys. IMO, most of the owners (for NASCAR type racing) are more loyal to the American manufacturers. I doubt you will ever see Stewart-Haas, Roush, Wood Brothers, Childress, Hendrick building Toyotas….and I’m glad of it. To be clear, I like all the drivers, Ford, Chevy, Toyota and all of them deserve to win a race but for me, if you’re not in a Ford I don’t root for you and I wish Dodge would replace Toyota (not happening, tho’)

Mike Spivey

Why the fleeting mention of C Bell? He could easily be the next superstar. Chevy driver who have a hard time staying on the same lap as Bell are going to cup. You can say he’s in Gibbs equipment but the others in Gibbs equipment don’t have the same speed.

This isn’t anything new. It’s been apparent that Toyota has had this problem for several years. Edwards and Kenseth departures have eased it but not enough. Jones is the only result of the young driver program yet. Bell needs a spot. I don’t know Hamlin’s contract status but Bell needs that seat.

Busch, Truex, Jones and Bell. They could rule the world. Hope it happens.

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