Toyota takes high hopes into Daytona 500 but weather may affect ‘The Great American Race’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Denny Hamlin leaned into the window of Christopher Bell’s winning Toyota to congratulate his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate on beating him in a Daytona 500 qualifying race.

Hamlin then gave Bell detailed directions to victory lane.

“Been to victory lane at Daytona a time or three,” Hamlin wrote on social media. “Had to show (Bell) the way.”

After a dismal showing in time trials for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, the Toyota camp roared back and swept the two 150-mile qualifying races that set the field for “The Great American Race.” The wins by Tyler Reddick of 23XI Racing — the team co-owned by Hamlin and Michael Jordan — and Bell marked the first sweep of the Daytona qualifying races for Toyota since 2014.

Adding in Hamlin’s victory in the exhibition Clash at the Coliseum earlier this month, Toyota heads into the Daytona 500 a perfect 3 for 3 on the season in its new Camry XSE. With all nine Toyota drivers qualified for Sunday’s field, the automaker is hoping to remain undefeated in 2024.

The nine entries are the most Toyota has had in the Daytona 500 since 2011.

Paul Doleshal, group manager of motorsports at Toyota North America, said the automaker was “disturbed” when no Toyota driver cracked the top 20 in time trials. Erik Jones had the fastest lap for the OEM at 22nd, and seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, the Legacy Motor Club co-owner and Jones’ teammate, was 35th and forced to race his way into the 40-car field.

“I think we were a little bit disturbed — probably a strong word — but just surprised about the lack of qualifying speed,” Doleshal said a day after the Toyota sweep. “But then felt that the car would race well, and that proved out, so we’re encouraged with that.”

Said Reddick: “This new Toyota Camry is truly a beast. It was a lot of fun to drive.”

Hamlin, who is Toyota’s only Daytona 500 winner with three previous victories, will be going for a fourth Sunday and was initially listed as the race favorite by FanDuel Sportsbook. The odds Friday had tilted slightly toward both Joey Logano, who will start from the pole for Team Penske in a new Ford Dark Horse Mustang, and Kyle Busch, who crashed in the qualifying race and will start 34th in a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

Logano will try to continue a hot streak for team owner Roger Penske. The run started last May when Penske won a record-extending 19th Indianapolis 500 with driver Josef Newgarden. He won the Cup championship in November with Ryan Blaney, won the Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race last month for the first time since 1969, and now has his first driver on the pole for the Daytona 500.

“There’s not a cooler race team that you can work for when it comes to motorsports in general. There’s not another motorsports team in America that’s decorated as much as Team Penske and what Roger Penske has done, whether it’s in NASCAR, sports cars, IndyCar, you name it, the guy’s been involved in all of it,” Logano said. “One thing that’s in common with all of it is he wins. That’s where I want to be because of that reason, right? The guy wins, he does it right, he’s professional. There’s no corners ever cut.

“Roger Penske has never gotten a Daytona 500 pole. Not very often that you can actually do something for the first time for ‘The Captain.’”

The last driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole was Dale Jarrett in 2000.

Weather is expected to play a role in Sunday’s race with rain expected to hit Daytona on Saturday. The forecast is so poor that NASCAR on Friday decided to run the ARCA race scheduled for Saturday after Friday night’s Truck Series race.

There’s less chance of the Daytona 500 being altered from its slated Sunday afternoon start time even though NASCAR moved up the Clash by a full a day earlier this month because of heavy rain in Los Angeles. NASCAR is most likely expected to wait it out as long as possible Sunday before deciding if the race needs to be postponed until Monday.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the defending race winner for JTG-Daugherty Racing, and his victory extended a streak of three consecutive upset winners. Austin Cindric won for Penske as a rookie in 2022 and Michael McDowell of tiny Front Row Motorsports won in 2021.

McDowell was second-fastest in time trials and will start alongside fellow Ford driver Logano on the front row when the green flag drops. There’s great anticipation to see how both Ford and Toyota perform in new cars designed for this season, while Chevrolet remains a mystery.

It’s been 10 years since Hendrick Motorsports won its last Daytona 500 — in 2014 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. — and team owner Rick Hendrick wants the streak to end as the team launches its 40th anniversary season.

Hendrick driver Kyle Larson is 0 for 10 in the race — he joins Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski as former Cup champions stuck in double-digit Daytona 500 skids — but showed both speed and an ability to push others to the front in his qualifying race.

Jeff Gordon, now the vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, believes Larson has a solid chance at breaking through for the win. It’s a big season for Larson, who will attempt to become the fifth driver in history to race in both the Indy 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, and a Daytona 500 win would certainly set the tone.

“It’s tougher than it’s ever been. It’s critical decision-making. Split-second decision-making can change whether you win the race or finish 10th or 15th,” Gordon said. “We’re not asking our drivers to do anything different other than go back through the races, analyze what they did good and bad, and just try to put yourself in those positions.

“You’ve got to get yourself in position, be patient, and if you’re in the top five with five laps to go, you make the move you think can win you the race and hope it works out.”

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

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