Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Toyota racing executive Ed Laukes sat alongside the make’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team owners Joe Gibbs and Barney Visser to address the racing media Saturday morning eager for the group to step right in where it left off in 2017 – a lot of victory circles and on stage hoisting the championship trophy.
Visser, who fields a Furniture Row Racing Toyota Camry for reigning champion Martin Truex Jr., made his first formal address to reporters since his team won the title in November. Visser suffered heart problems late last season and while recovering from surgery had to watch from his home in Denver, as Truex secured the organization’s first ever NASCAR championship in the season finale.
“I’m feeling great,” Visser said, offering a smile. “There’s nothing like getting new pipes. (Laughter.) I didn’t realize how bad it was, but this has been really good.
“I’m told that I won’t be 100 percent for another three months. As good as I feel now, this is a home run.”
But, Visser conceded, it was hard to be on the sidelines for the championship round of racing and then the NASCAR Awards Banquet as he recovered the heart surgery.
“You know, I missed the people and the competitive spirit,” he said. “But mostly the people. I heard the engines fire up the other day, and I realized how much I missed that.”
And he corrected the misinformation last year that doctors did now “allow” him to watch the final race, out of caution for his heart condition.
“That’s a rumor going around,” Visser said smiling. “I don’t remember Texas because that was right in the middle of it, and then I don’t really remember Phoenix. So Homestead I got my heart rate slowed down, and I was able to watch it on TV with my wife.”
Having Visser back at the track, his driver amped to defend the title and looking at Gibbs outstanding lineup including past series champion Kyle Busch, former Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones – who moved from Visser’s team to Gibb’s this season – this Toyota podium was both visibly upbeat and optimistic.
Hamlin will start on the outside of the front row for Sunday’s Daytona 500 (on FOX at 2:30 p.m. ET) and Jones finished third in one of the qualifying races – all good promising signs. All the result of an offseason dedicated to maintaining Toyota’s competitive lead.
“I think for us, just you take each part of the race team, pit road, and we’ve worked extremely hard on that,” said Gibbs, whose team has won four series titles.
“We know there’s a lot of changes there. It’s going to be real interesting to see what happens, I think, in particular in the race tomorrow (Daytona 500).
“So you take pit road, obviously with the drivers, our engineering group, all of our plans as far as new chassis and stuff. It’s kind of segmented. I think you just work extremely hard on each one of those, and we have it very well organized, I think, at our place. We’re thrilled.
“But it’s all the way across the board. You’ve got everything you’re working on. And it’s a short time frame, really. You take a week off for Christmas, and you’re back after it. I think it’s detail, hard work, and having things really organized. I think that’s kind of where you spend the off season. It goes by in a hurry.”
Visser and Gibbs addressed a wide variety of topics Saturday morning.
Asked about a contract extension with Truex, whose current deal is up at the end of the season, Visser assured, “We’ll be working on it this year. I don’t anticipate any problems at all.”
And Visser, noted, that although he isn’t fielding a second car this year he was open to adding another to the stable should the right sponsorship opportunity arise.
Gibbs was equally upbeat and excited about the chances for his teams both on Sunday in NASCAR’s biggest race and on the season. He was understandably enthusiastic about his new lineup and the addition of the 21-year old Jones.
“He’s one of those young guys, and I will say this: When you talk to him, Daniel and Erik, they know,” Gibbs said. “There’s going to be about seven of them going as hard as they can go, and it’s going to be interesting to see which one of those young guys takes off this year and starts having some big races and hitting some home runs in there.
“But I just think you’re looking for good young talent, and it’s great that we had a chance to get him.”
Overall, the podium had great confidence in what to expect for the season – the debut of Toyota’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car last year certainly turned out well and the men only had high expectations of what a year under the belt might produce.
“We started off, as you all remember, with a little bit of some people questioning exactly how the new Camry was performing the first few races of the season, and working together with our partners at Joe Gibbs and at Furniture Row, we came back with not only our second driver’s championship but also our second manufacturer’s championship, and that’s a huge rallying cry for our company,” Laukes said.
“Obviously a super special year, and really excited about starting 2018 and ready to go.’’