Despite losing Byron, Toyota still has plenty of young talent

There's no doubt Toyota Racing Development is flush with young talent.

Despite losing Byron, Toyota still has plenty of young talent
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
William Byron and Rick Hendrick
Race winner William Byron, Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota
William Byron and Rick Hendrick
William Byron, Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota
Race winner William Byron, Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota
Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota unveil
Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota, Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota
Daniel Suarez, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Ben Rhodes, ThorSport Racing Toyota
Rico Abreu, ThorSport Racing Toyota
Rico Abreu, ThorSport Racing Toyota
Todd Gilliland, David Gilliland Racing
Todd Gilliland
Todd Gilliland, David Gilliland Racing
Tanner Thorson
Tanner Thorson won the Vacuworx Race of Champions

David Wilson, TRD’s president and general manager, used to joke that having more drivers than available seats was a good problem. Now, he admits the dilemma keeps him up at night.

That’s understandable. On Thursday, Hendrick Motorsports announced William Byron has signed on to its driver development program, starting in 2017. 

The politically-correct lovefest followed. Both Hendrick and TRD said all the right things. There were well-wishes from each side as well as the "We’re still one big happy family fighting for the title" sentiments.

But let’s be honest for a minute. No manufacturer likes to lose a prospect with Byron’s potential, particularly a driver who has won five of the first 13 races in the Camping Wolrd Truck Series this season and has a points lead equal to one full race over second-place Daniel Hemric. 

Byron, 18, started in the Chevy camp. Last year, he won four races and the K&N Pro Series title before being recruited by Kyle Busch Motorsports to run trucks. He appeared poised to follow a path similar to that of Erik Jones — trucks, Xfinity Series, then Cup.

“The reality is more aren’t going to make it than are going to make it,” Wilson said of aspiring racers. “That’s baseball as well. It gets a lot more difficult the further you get up the ladder. 

"We’re comfortable now with Furniture Row and Joe Gibbs Racing. We have to be careful that we don’t push that growth too fast, too soon. 

“Getting to the sixth team was very, very difficult. You want to make sure you don’t overload your partners and put yourself in a position where you’re not performing now. We feel great about Erik — and the timing. We’re confident that when we hit the track next year we’ll be able to maintain our competitiveness and give Erik the tools, the resources, the people that he needs to grow and to learn.”

No one expected Byron to blossom so quickly. Toyota had supported an expansion at Furniture Row Racing to make room for Jones. The next challenge will be to find a place for Daniel Suarez. Maybe Byron realized the limitation for growth in the Toyota camp with just six seats at the top?

Still planning of Toyota talent coming up the ranks

And as Midget powerhouse owner Keith Kunz keeps cranking out talent on the open-wheel side, and phenoms such as Todd Gilliland appear on the scene, Toyota can continue to invest in the maturation process, but owners such Rick Hendrick and Roger Penske will be waiting in the wings with a checkbook to lure the ingenues away.

Never fear, TRD fans. There’s still plenty of promise in the Toyota pipeline.

It’s just a matter of time before the light switches on for Christopher Bell, Byron’s teammate and a Kunz' graduate. Bell, 21, won at Eldora in just his third NCWTS start. He competed in seven races last year with three top-10 results. This season, Bell has endured a few setbacks. But veteran crew chief Jerry Baxter has been a great influence on the young driver. Just before halfway in the schedule, Bell won at Gateway and hasn’t finished worse than 10th since. He’s currently fifth in the truck standings. 

Ben Rhodes won the NKNPSE title the year before Byron while running a partial Xfinity Series schedule with JR Motorsports. This season he moved to ThorSport Racing for a full-season of trucks. Rhodes, 19, has two poles, two top fives and four top 10 finishes. His average qualifying effort of 8.3 has been far more impressive than his average finish of 14.3. However, Rhodes has led 51 laps this season. Despite an engine failure at Bristol, he is currently 13th in the standings.

Rico Abreu, another TRD development driver, has endured his share of challenges this season but has shown marked improvement over the second half. Despite a fire that destroyed the ThorSport race shop in Sandusky, Ohio, in June, Abreu, 24, has scored two of his four top-10 finishes since. His best result, not surprisingly, was at Eldora Speedway last month where he finished third. 

Todd Gilliland ... The next big thing?

Wilson doesn’t anticipate Gilliland, 16, will make his truck debut this season. But the NKNPSW points leader has won five of the first nine races and has just one finish worse than fourth. It’s just a matter of time before the third-generation racer makes his meteoric rise up the ranks. 

“Obviously we’re really impressed with what we see with Todd and think he’s truly one of a handful of special guys,” Wilson said. “We’re working with him and his father (David) and would certainly like to see him in a Tundra in the next year. But just considerations at this point.

“You have to be careful that you don’t go too fast, too soon. There’s not a formula for this. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. But there’s a lot of moving parts and pieces.”

Tanner Thorson is also on Wilson’s radar. Thorson, 20, finished second in the USAC Honda National Midget Series with four wins last season with Kunz. He’s currently attempting to win duo titles — in USAC and on the Powri Lucas Oil National Midget Series. On Sunday, Thorson made his debut in ARCA with Venturini Motorsports. He qualified fifth and finished 12th, three laps down. 

“I’d love to see Tanner move up,” Wilson said. “I think one of the critical junctures is going from open wheel to a full body race car. But every driver responds differently. There’s no formula but certainly how he performs in these couple of ARCA rides and the late model rides will dictate when he’s ready to attack a K&N or a full ARCA season.

“I like Tanner. He’s a good kid and I think he’s got a great future.”

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