Is Toyota Falling Apart in NASCAR?

By Tristan Grider
November 02, 2022
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

We have learned in recent weeks that the most successful driver in Toyota’s NASCAR tenure will be leaving the manufacturer for Chevy in 2023. Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyotas top driver for more than 15 years in departing for Richard Childress Racing. 

Busch won 2 championships and scored 57 wins over his 15 seasons driving for Toyota. With Busch leaving Toyota, so does his accomplished NASCAR Truck Series team. Busch announced in his RCR press conference that KBM would be a Chevy team in 2023.  

Toyota has found a new team to try and fill the void of KBM leaving.  David Gilliland Racing, was a Ford team last season. In 2023, DGR will be a TRD team and will also be renamed to Tricon Garage. Corey Heim, Taylor Gray and Tanner Gray will drive for Tricon full-time next season and the team will also field a 4th truck with a rotation of drivers. This is good news for TRD as DGR is an up and coming team with two wins in 2022.  I see this as a win for Toyota.

However, I’m starting to notice that Toyota tends to lose a lot of drivers and teams. Toyota only has six Cup Series entries, by far the lowest available cup rides in the top level of NASCAR. Until 2020, there were only 4 competitive seats available. With not enough seats, up and coming drivers leave TRD for other teams.   

Drivers who have left Toyota over the past decade

Chandler Smith
The most recent driver to leave TRD, Chandler Smith will leave the manufacturer to drive for Chevy in 2023 with Kaulig Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Smith was planned by JGR to move up to the Xfinity Series in 2023. Over the past two seasons in the Truck Series, Smith has won five races and is going to compete for the Truck championship at Phoenix. Most drivers would have hopped at the chance to drive for JGR. The car that Smith would have drove, won the championship in 2021.

Hailie Deegan 
Deegan never drove for TRD in the top levels of NASCAR.  However Toyota fielded her in the ARCA Series in the past. However, she left TRD for the same reason most left, lack of seats. Deegan was driving for DGR the last two seasons in the Truck Series and she comes with a lot of sponsorship. Monster Energy and Pristine Auction are just a few of the big sponsors that Deegan brings to the table, and any team would be happy to have her. While her results haven’t been what she wanted these last two seasons, she brings plenty of eyes to whatever team she runs for. 

Daniel Hemric
Hemric, a journeyman driver who struggled to find victory lane, took a step back after his debut season in the NASCAR Cup Series. For the 2021 season, Hemric signed with JGR to drive the 18 in the Xfinity Series. While he still struggled to find victory lane with the team, Daniel and the 18 team made the Championship 4. Then the best case scenario occurred, Hemric won the final race of the season, cementing him as a NASCAR winner and as a NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion. The celebration was wild, however, it was a little awkward. A  week earlier, Daniel Hemric announced that he would be leaving JGR to drive for Kaulig Racing in 2022.  

Noah Gragson
So far Gragson has been unstoppable this season  in the Xfinity Series. He has won eight races and is locked into the Championship 4 for the second straight season. He will race full-time in the Cup Series with Petty GMS in 2023, however many forget that Noah started as a TRD driver. Gragson competed in the Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports part-time in 2016 and full-time from 2017-2018. He won two races across his two full-time seasons. However, when Toyota let Gragson know that they wanted to keep him in the Truck for another season, Noah walked away from the deal and signed with JR Motorsports.  

Brandon Jones
One of the longest tenured drivers in TRD is Brandon Jones. TRD stole Jones from Chevy back in 2018. While he doesn’t win a lot, Jones is consistent. He also has major sponsorship backing from Menards. In his five seasons with JGR, Jones has won five races, and never finished lower than 10th in points. However, a few weeks ago, Jones announced that he would be leaving JGR for JRM in 2023. My guess for why he is leaving is that he wasn’t offered the 18 in the Cup level. Ty Gibbs, grandson of team owner Joe Gibbs, is expected to run at the cup level in 2023 with JGR. So honestly, I don’t blame Jones for wanting to exit. Plus, even if Jones hadn’t announced his departure yet, after the stunt Gibbs pulled on Jones at Martinsville, I wouldn’t want to race for “Ty Gibbs Racing” either.  

Todd Gilliland   
Current Cup driver for Front Row Motorsports, Todd Gilliland a few seasons ago was running for KBM in the Truck Series. However, I feel like this one wasn’t really Toyota’s fault. Gilliland and his team owner Kyle Busch reportedly didn’t get along. This was the main reason for his departure at the end of the 2019 season. He moved to Ford in 2020 with Front Row and now he is succeeding in the Cup Level.  

Erik Jones
Going through the ranks of the Cup level, Erik Jones was seen as the new hot driver for Toyota. He dominated through the Truck and Xfinity levels and it was no surprise he was moved to Cup in 2017. He drove for TRD’s affiliate team Furniture Row Racing, to be teammates with Martin Truex Jr. He had a solid rookie season and won the Rookie of the Year over drivers like Suarez and Ty Dillon. He signed with JGR the following season to drive the 20 car, replacing Matt Kenseth who was let go by JGR after 2017.  In his first two years with JGR he found victory lane and made the NASCAR playoffs. However, in 2020 he barely missed the playoffs and JGR just gave up on him. He was replaced by Christopher Bell who had just finished his rookie season. These last two seasons Jones has raced for Richard Petty. He had his best season since that 2020 season and found victory lane at Darlington. Why would Toyota give up on a driver after just one down year?

Daniel Suarez
Another driver rushed into the Cup level was the 2016 Xfinity Series champ, Daniel Suarez. Suarez was tapped to replace NASCAR legend Carl Edwards. Edwards’ retired after the 2016 unexpectedly and that left JGR and Toyota no choice but to have Suarez go Cup racing. After two seasons of racing for Toyota in the 19, he was let go by JGR in favor of Champion Martin Truex Jr. After bouncing around a few teams, Suarez landed with Trackhouse Racing in 2021, a new startup team. This season, Suarez had the best season of his career, getting multiple top 5s and a win at Sonoma. He also made it to the round of 12 in this year's NASCAR playoffs. Suarez, like Jones, is another driver that Toyota seemed to give up on.  However, Toyota’s biggest regret has to be the next driver on the list.

Joey Logano
The biggest name Toyota has lost besides Kyle Busch was Joey Logano. Deemed as Tony Stewart’s replacement after Tony left to become a driver owner,  Logano drove the #20 car starting in 2009 at the ripe age of 18. He even picked up a win in his rookie season becoming the youngest driver to win at the Cup Series level. However, Joey failed to meet the “expectations” of JGR and they let him go after the 2012 season. In my opinion he wasn’t given the proper amount of time to develop before he was in the Cup Series. Fast forward to today, Logano is a top 5 driver in the sport, the 2018 Champion and is competing for his second title this weekend at Phoenix. The crazy thing is that they let him walk.  Sure they replaced him with Matt Kenseth, but since Logano, there has been 3 other drivers to drive the #20.

Toyota has a win now mentality. Since 2008, they have won a race every year. However, they only have three championships at the Cup level.  (Ky Busch 2015,2019 // Truex Jr. 2017). While they dominate the lower series in NASCAR, they need to field more Cup rides and not give up on drivers early in their careers. Also, It seems that owner Joe Gibbs and the entire Gibbs family are putting too much faith in Ty Gibbs. Gibbs, while talented, isn’t Cup Series ready. If he goes Cup racing next season, I see his career turning out like Austin Dillon. A win every once in a while and never taking that next step into a true contender.

It’ll be really interesting where Toyota goes in the next couple seasons. With Hamlin and Truex on the verge of retirement, where will they find the talent to replace them? John Hunter Nemechek could be an option.  He does have Cup experience, but he seems to struggle even in lower series. Could it be the young Sammy Smith? They shouldn't rush him like Toyota did back with Joey Logano. TRD has a lot of decisions to make in the future and their options are beginning to dwindle as the season winds down.