TULSA, Okla. – Six years ago, Toyota Racing Development was watching as Kevin Swindell put the finishing touches on a five-year, undefeated stretch for Swindell Motorsports at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals.
On that night in 2013, Jason Meyers was the highest-finishing TRD-powered driver in 12th during the Saturday A-main, and Toyota’s grassroots program bosses were wondering when they would be able to reach the head of the field.
Fast forward to the present day, and they have their answer. Toyota’s dominance is here and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Rico Abreu broke through for the first time for TRD in 2015 and added a repeat performance the following year. Since then, Christopher Bell has come into his own and won three straight Chili Bowls to extend Toyota’s undefeated streak in Tulsa to five straight years.
Over the past two Chili Bowls, the marque has also won all but two of the nine possible preliminary night features, proving that their Saturday strength is no fluke and that they can succeed with multiple drivers in the TRD stable.
It’s a rise that, while it may have been expected to happen eventually by most, was fueled in large part by the Swindell family’s Chili Bowl dominance and a desire to reach that same level of excellence.
“From our side … I remember the Swindells winning so many years ago and that was tough to take,” explained TRD General Manager Tyler Gibbs. “However, we were learning a lot through that process and that’s just kind of the way that Toyota does it. We come and we continually get better and better, and I feel like we’ve shown that over the last five years that has gotten us to this point.”
With Toyota’s rise at the Chili Bowl came with it the rise of their longtime partner team, Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports. The pairing is one that Gibbs notes has been mutually beneficial.
“We are fortunate to be partners with Keith and Pete (Willoughby), and KKM is certainly an incredible team,” Gibbs noted. “Having that kind of organization, we can work with and can grow with has been absolutely instrumental for us.
“It validates our program. It helps us evaluate talent,” he added. “When you have benchmarks like Kyle (Larson) and like Christopher, it just helps you evaluate young talent. For us, winning the A-main is a huge deal for us and something we take a lot of pride in.”
Winning the Chili Bowl is something that team owner Keith Kunz takes pride in as well, noting that his team would be “a different animal completely” without the support he’s had from Toyota and TRD.
“Our team wouldn’t be what it is without Toyota. It all started years ago with Kyle (Larson) and now, it’s grown into something I would never have anticipated,” said Kunz. “We took a chance. It’s all worked out since then.
“I won my first Chili Bowl in 1994 with Andy Hillenburg … and if you’d told me then that I’d be standing here today with five in a row and that I’d been a part of nine Chili Bowl wins in total, I don’t know if I’d have believed you,” Kunz added. “It’s all been a special journey that I’m proud to be a part of, and the recent success is a testament to what Toyota has brought to this team and their determination as well.
“I’m thankful to be here. It’s a whole lot of fun.”