Toyota’s Kamui Kobayashi, widely regarded as one of the best sports car drivers in the world, is set to make his NASCAR debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in August. He will race for 23XI Racing, a team co-owned by NBA icon Michael Jordan and NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin. The move makes Kobayashi the second Japanese driver to race in NASCAR’s top Cup Series and the first to do so in a Toyota. Toyota has been part of NASCAR’s top series since 2007 but has never had a Japanese driver on its team.
For Kobayashi, who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2021 driving for Toyota Gazoo, this is a dream come true. As he put it, “It’s such a big sport in the United States and racing in Europe, I never had the chance or opportunity to race NASCAR. I think the opportunity will be challenging for myself because it is such a different category. But if I have success, I think it will make more opportunities for Japanese drivers.”
Kobayashi will drive the No. 67 Toyota in the race on August 13. David Wilson, President of TRD, U.S.A, Toyota’s U.S.-based racing division, expressed his excitement at the prospect of Kamui driving one of their cars. “Kamui shares the passion for motorsports that all of us at Toyota and TRD, U.S.A. live every day, so it will be exciting to show him our NASCAR program,” he said.
Kobayashi’s racing career began with karting in Japan. He was discovered by Toyota while racing in Europe and went on to compete in Formula 1 for five years. He later returned to Japan and switched to the Supra Formula Series, while also racing in IMSA and winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice.
His love for racing in the United States is well-known, but it created a challenge when IMSA recently introduced new regulations to its top class to make it eligible for Le Mans. This created a conflict of interest between Kobayashi’s Toyota responsibilities and racing in IMSA. Moving to NASCAR frees him up to race in the sport he loves, while also giving Toyota a chance to field a Japanese driver in its top NASCAR team for the first time.
Many consider NASCAR’s Next Gen car to be similar to the GT Lexus sports car Kobayashi drove in IMSA last year, which gives him a head start. He will be allowed to test with 23XI at a small track in Virginia ahead of the race at Indianapolis, and he said he is not worried about seat time because he doesn’t need much practice. “I’m a guy who doesn’t need much practice, to be honest,” he said. “I think once we jump in the car, we will be OK in a couple of laps. So I’m not really concerned about form.”