When a team unexpectedly needs to replace a driver, it can create a lot of uncertainty. Who it will line up as a replacement is often a mad scramble to ensure a capable proxy is selected to fill the vacated seat.
Last year, such a situation unfolded when Hendrick Motorsports needed to find a substitute for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. With NASCAR’s most popular driver sidelined indefinitely, Hendrick initially tabbed Alex Bowman as a one-race fill in. However, when Earnhardt was expected be out long-term, team owner Rick Hendrick coaxed Jeff Gordon out of retirement.
But when Carl Edwards shockingly informed Joe Gibbs Racing just before Christmas he was stepping away immediately as driver of the No. 19 Toyota, there was no question who should be named his successor. The answer was obvious: Daniel Suarez, the 25-year-old reigning Xfinity Series champion, who JGR and Toyota had been grooming in NASCAR’s top developmental division.
“We had a plan for Daniel and he was going to run another full Xfinity season to defend his championship and he was good with that,” Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson told SB Nation. “But make no mistake, we also knew he was ready. It was a no-brainer. He was top of mind.”
Although not seamless by any means, as matters such as informing sponsors and getting their approval was needed, the transition from Edwards to Suarez was rather straightforward; exactly as Toyota intended when the carmaker crafted its driver development program five years ago.
“This validates Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing’s commitment towards developing drivers,” Wilson said. “It was rewarding that in this particular case we knew who was next in line right away and that was cool. I think a lot of organizations may have been caught out were they in a similar situation and be forced to look outside their own house.”
Next man up
The idea of manufacturers implementing a system where it signs young drivers then fosters their growth and hopeful ascension up NASCAR’s hierarchy isn’t revolutionary. Once a common practice as NASCAR’s popularity exploded during the late 1990s through the turn of the century, it went dormant when the costs began outweighing the benefits.
This placed the onus of driver development on the individual teams, many of which had neither the resources nor financial flexibility to underwrite the expensive program that often resulted in torn up racecars with no guarantee for return.
When Toyota entered the Cup Series in 2007 its theory on driver development was similar to that of Chevrolet, Dodge, and Ford. Its flagship teams, Michael Waltrip Racing and later JGR (which aligned with Toyota in 2008), were solely responsible for finding and grooming emerging talent with the hopes of them eventually becoming top-flight racers.
Losing a driver many heralded as the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart was the impetus for this mentality to change.
Like Gordon and Stewart, Kyle Larson had risen up through the dirt sprint car ranks and by 2011 he was ready to make the next logical step in his career, which meant transitioning to NASCAR and full-bodied stock cars.
Driving a Keith Kunz Motorsports midget car, which was backed by Toyota, Larson had close ties to the carmaker, and it recognized the inordinate amount talent the then-19-year-old possessed. Wanting to keep him under its umbrella, Toyota worked as a facilitator bringing Larson to the 2011 Cup Series playoff opener at Chicago Speedway where he was introduced to team executives.
Nothing tangible came of the meeting, as funding was scarce and teams weren’t looking to place a young driver in one of their cars with the hope he might work out — even if he was drawing comparisons to Gordon and Stewart.
Now, if Larson could bring some sponsorship with him, then something could be arranged. Money wasn’t something Larson’s parents, Mike and Janet, had in abundance. They were a middle-class family, and while they went above and beyond in financially supporting their son’s career, cutting a six-figure check for a full-time NASCAR ride wasn’t feasible.
Chip Ganassi was one car owner willing to buck the trend and take a chance on the racer some were calling a prodigy. It was an opportunity Larson couldn’t say no to, and he signed on with Chip Ganassi Racing to drive a Chevrolet in a lower division with the promise of a promotion if Larson delivered on the track. He did, and he remains with CGR, where he currently is coming off a season that saw him win his first Cup Series race and earn a playoff berth.
For Toyota, Larson’s defection stung. It had the chance to lock up a once-in-a-generation talent, but because it didn’t have the structure to provide a platform to showcase his ability, he slipped away.
What ensued was the creation of a tiered system that in many aspects is comparable to how professional baseball is organized. Taking the analogy a step further, Toyota even employs what is best described a chief scout: Jack Irving, who oversees the recruitment and development of its drivers (some as young as 15) and then facilitates their farming out to a partner team at the grassroots level.
“Losing Larson was a big deal to us, because we knew he was really good,” Irving told SB Nation. “Kyle was the reason why we all knew that we had to pay more attention to [driver development].”
A mathematical formula has even been crafted to analyze prospects. Factors like the competition a driver is racing against, the kind of track — some tracks are renowned for placing a premium on a drivers’ talent over others — and even the familiarity a driver has with a given speedway are calculated. Think of it as NASCAR’s version of Sabermetrics.
“If you put someone in a great car and they win, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best driver on that track,” said Irving, who is on the road 210 days and attends in excess of a 120 races a year. “But what we try to do is place a rating on a car and what we believe the car to be capable of, then you try and do a rating on the field. Running a lesser race on a track where someone runs six, seven, eight times in a year and winning is much different than showing up and winning a [big Super Late Model race] against a stacked field.
“There are just so many variables to the way we assess them, the way we analyze them, and the way we get them.”
Once signed, a driver enters into a pipeline that begins either with midget or Super Late Models, then up to ARCA and NASCAR’s K&N East and West regional tours, then to the Camping World Truck Series, then the Xfinity Series and one day, if all goes right, the Cup Series.
Promotion is earned by performance, though Irving admits the primary criteria above all else is winning. And since Toyota ensures the quality of equipment is at a high level when a driver does get an opportunity, whether in a KKR midget, a Kyle Busch Motorsports truck, or JGR Xfinity car, a driver’s ability is ultimately the difference maker between success and failure. Nothing else.
After its initial implementation, a few years passed before the program took full effect, but the impact is now unmistakable. Wanting to increase its quantity of Cup Series cars, JGR’s affiliate team, Furniture Row Racing, expanded for this season. Needing a wheelman, FRR tapped Eric Jones, the first prospect Toyota signed as developmental driver back in 2013 had ascended from driving a KBM Super Late Model to KBM truck to a JGR Xfinity driver.
Then there is Suarez, who joined the system in 2013 and is the reigning Xfinity champion. Before Edwards’ sudden retirement, Suarez was set to spend another year in NASCAR’s No. 2 series. He’ll now step into a high-pressure situation with a team that nearly won the Cup title, but his familiarity with JGR and Toyota will help ease the transition. Even before the promotion the native of Monterrey, Mexico was in the habit of calling Busch on a regular basis to solicit advice.
And while the immediate benefits are obvious, long-term Toyota has advantageously positioned itself. According to a poll SB Nation conducted of more than 60 drivers, crew chiefs, car owners, and team managers across NASCAR’s three national touring divisions last year, three of the top five young drivers are currently under contract to Toyota. (A fourth, William Byron, drove a KBM truck last season but signed with Dale Earnhardt’s Chevrolet-supported Xfinity team for 2017.)
Similar to stick-and-ball sports, Toyota’s philosophy is essentially “next man up.” Jones and Suarez moving up creates an opening for the likes of Christopher Bell, 22, who drives a truck full time for KBM and last month won the prestigious Chili Bowl National midget race in a KKR car, or 18-year Noah Gragson, who graduated from the K&N Series to a full-time trucks ride with KBM this season.
Now everyone’s getting involved
What Toyota has done and its effectiveness hasn’t gone unnoticed. Beginning this season, Ford is starting up a similar program where it directly signs prospects then assigns them to one of its truck or Xfinity Series teams. In many aspects it mirrors Toyota what has been doing. The program is spearheaded by Dave Pericak, the global director of Ford Performance.
“When you look at longevity in this sport and you look out five to 10 years down the road and you take everything into account, you have to have a pipeline of young talent coming through,” Pericak said . “As a company, we haven’t had a program in place that will benefit all of the Ford teams.”
Ford’s reasoning goal extends beyond just a conduit that will serve the manufacturer well into the future on the racetrack, but on the production side as well. Its young drivers will also work with the company to test, evaluate, and provide feedback on cars consumers can purchase in the showroom.
“We are not only gonna develop the racecar drivers from a pure racing perspective, we’re also gonna develop them from a production car development side of things,” Pericak said. “That’s really important because we’re gonna make sure that the young drivers understand everything about the automobile and what makes it work.
“To be able to, at a young age, educate and develop drivers in that way is what makes our program pretty unique.”
Twenty-two-year-old Chase Briscoe is Ford’s first prospect, with the defending ARCA champion set to drive a truck full time for Brad Keselowski Racing this season. Keselowski, a former Cup champion, has long been a proponent of helping young drivers, though he didn’t always have the same level of commitment, financial and otherwise, from sponsors and manufacturer. That will no longer be the case.
“This sport it’s tough on people, it’s tough on drivers, it’s tough on crew members, it’s grueling,” Keselowski said. “We’re seeing a lot of turnover and we’re gonna see a lot of turnover in the next few years and there’s nothing wrong with being prepared. And I think Ford making the move they’re making with the driver program really positions them in a key and strategic way in case that wave hits them.”
Chevrolet still doesn’t have an official program, but Bowman’s impressive stint as Earnhardt’s backup earned him an official contract with Hendrick, where the 23-year-old will continue driving its simulator and acting as a test driver. Team owner Rick Hendrick also snatched Byron away from Toyota, where the driver who won a rookie-record seven times in 2016 will advance to Xfinity.
The willingness of Hendrick to commit to Byron after previously eschewing driver development speaks to his belief in the 19-year-old. And with Hendrick having Chase Elliott, 21, taking Cup Rookie of the Year honors last season, the team’s core lineup appears solidified for the next decade.
“Trust me, I have been a tremendous failure at driver development. One year we wrecked 50-some cars and that was enough for me,” Hendrick said. “But none of those (drivers) had the experience or the success that William has.”
Having Byron jump to a rival seemingly mirrors Larson’s departure, undercutting the genesis of the Toyota development program. Not so, says Wilson and Irving. There has always been the understanding that because the number of prospects would be greater than the number seats open — especially at the Cup and Xfinity levels — drivers leaving for opportunities elsewhere would need to be accepted. As is the fact not every prospect will pan out as anticipated.
At the end of the day Toyota’s goal is to have more hits than misses, and for those drivers who do leave on their own volition that they recognize and appreciate the chance provided. And perhaps, those good memories will be the catalyst for a reunion down the road.
“We recognize we’re not going to keep every driver,” Wilson said. “William’s not even 20 years old and conceivably he can be driving for another 20 to 25 years, so who’s to say another circumstance doesn’t play out down the road that he’s back in a Toyota? What I believe is that what he takes with him is an appreciation and respect for our company. And should the circumstance present itself down the road, I think that works towards our favor.”