- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Despite spending millions, joining forces with teams that secured deep-pocketed sponsors like UPS, NAPA and Red Bull and convincing three teams to use its engines, the much-publicized debut of Toyota in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last year was a disaster.

How it started: Michael Waltrip’s car was found to have an illegal fuel additive that could increase horsepower, a significant rules violation. Waltrip’s crew chief was fined a series-record $100,000.

How it ended: No wins by the seven competitors who drove Toyota Camrys and only two top-five finishes in 139 starts.

It was a disheartening debut for a company that had enjoyed success in many forms of North American auto racing, chiefly the Indy Racing League, and sunk more than $200 million into establishing its NASCAR brand. And it was a disgusting result for the teams, which failed to qualify for a combined 79 races.

But if preseason testing and Daytona 500 qualifying are any indication, Toyota — while not ready to challenge the giant that is Chevrolet — will reach victory lane at some point this season.

“We’ve worked very hard over the last three to four months with our testing at Daytona, California, Las Vegas and Nashville,” Waltrip said. “And we noticed at each test that our cars were faster than they’ve ever been. Especially down here, we’ve figured out how to take advantage of the power Toyota has given us.”

Eleven Toyotas will compete in tomorrow’s two 125-mile races that set the field for Sunday’s 500. Six Camrys already have secured spots in the race.

Leading the charge has been Waltrip, who will start his No. 55 car outside of the front row after a qualifying speed of 186.734 mph Sunday, and the newest addition to Toyota — Joe Gibbs Racing.

JGR’s Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch — plus Dave Blaney’s No. 22 of Bill Davis Racing — are locked into the race through 2007 owner’s points. David Reutimann is also in the field by virtue of being the second-fastest qualifier among those not guaranteed a position.

Waltrip, who owns his car and those driven by Reutimann and Dale Jarrett, finished 44th in points last year and rarely was fast enough to qualify.

“I can’t tell you how many dollars were lost and how much credibility was taken away from us with [the scandal],” Waltrip said. “I had to work really, really hard over the last year in order to try and prove that we were worthy of this opportunity. I think we’re slowly but surely starting to prove that.”

Toyota cars had nine of the top 21 speeds Sunday.

“They’re strong,” said Ryan Newman, who drives the No. 12 Dodge. “I think a lot of things with them [last year] went under the radar because of the whole qualifying deal and who made the show and who didn’t. I think they’re a strong competitor as far as their speed and horsepower.”

Although the organizations run by Waltrip (three cars), Red Bull (Brian Vickers and A.J. Allmendinger, who are long shots to make the 500) and Bill Davis Racing (Blaney and Jacques Villeneuve) have improved, the presence of Gibbs’ organization has resonated.

JGR, which started as Pontiac team in 1992, was third fiddle at Chevrolet behind Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing even though the success was consistent.

With Toyota, JGR is the leader.

“You know the guys at Gibbs are going to run really well,” said Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Ford. “Their talent is spectacular, as good as anyone in the garage. But I don’t believe Toyota has shown any real weakness on anything.”

Gibbs’ cars are the only Toyotas guaranteed spots in the opening five races, so the other teams have to start qualifying well when the normal format begins next week in California.

The fact NASCAR has gone exclusively to the Car of Tomorrow (now Car of Today) is another advantage for Toyota. The playing field aerodynamically has been evened, leaving horsepower as the biggest valuable.

“We know we’ve got basically the same body as we had last year, and all we’re dealing with is the different horsepower,” Hamlin said. “There’s really going to be no transition for us — I hope we’re as competitive if not more competitive than we have been.”

While Toyota’s goals were small last year (make the race), it seems likely it will become the first foreign manufacturer to win a Sprint Cup Series race since 1954. And most of that focus will be on Gibbs’ team.

“We are talking about Toyota here — they’re going to make it to victory lane,” Busch said. “As everybody has said, the Gibbs organization is ultimately going to be the tell-tale story of how good Toyota’s going to be.”


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide