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Toyota bolsters lineup for run at first Cup title

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, Feb. 01, 2013

This is the second of a three-part preview of full-time entries in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this season.

Toyota has accomplished a lot since it began competition in NASCAR’s premier series during 2007.

What it has yet to do, however, is see one of its drivers capture that coveted championship.

That could change this season.

Clint Bowyer, in his first season with Michael Waltrip Racing, finished as title runner-up to Brad Keselowski last year and there’s no reason to think he can’t be in position to do so again.

Bowyer’s teammate, Martin Truex Jr., also qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, although he failed to make it to Victory Lane during the season.

Matt Kenseth is the only new face for Toyota for 2013, moving from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing during the offseason, and replacing Joey Logano in the No. 20.

Kenseth and Bobby Labonte – who drives for JTG Daugherty Racing – are the drivers in the Toyota stable who have Cup titles.

Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch return at JGR with their respective teams intact and Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and team co-owner Michael Waltrip will share time this year in the No. 55 for MWR.

Q&A with Hamlin

Q: What is your goal for this season?

Our goals haven’t changed from one year to the next. We look at – we need to win at least six to seven races. That’s where we feel like we’ll be this year. And, we need to fill up the stat column with the proper amount of top-fives and 10s that you need to win a championship. The champion is not going to go out there and win one or two races for the year. They’re going to be the guys that win consistently. We’ve done that over the last few years, but we haven’t had reliability to win a championship. So, that’s been the focus of this race team, really, all offseason.

Q: What has kept you from winning a championship?

We’ve won a lot of races year after year and we are always a team that wins a lot of races, but we’re always in the hunt and then something mechanical happens to our cars and it takes us out of the championship. Hopefully those bugs have been fixed. We’re working on a new process to make our cars more tough and rigid, making sure that they don’t fall apart. That’s been the key that’s really kept us from the championship.

Q: Will it be easier going into your second season with Darian Grubb?

I’d like to say that we’ve got a notebook now, but you’re not going to be able to use everything that you had from last year because of the new car. Some things will relate, like the short-track set-ups will be similar. But, this car weighs a lot different. It’s heavier and lighter in different places, so I think everyone is going to be starting all over again honestly. Especially with this cambered rear-end set-up that they’re having, I think that you’re going to see a lot of axel failures early in the year. The cars that are the most reliable for the first 26 races will probably be the ones that make the Chase. The teams that struggle to get this new set-up stuff to work will find themselves searching for a wild card when it gets down to it.

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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