Monday, February 18, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — After a season filled with worries about simply making races for Toyota, two of the automaker’s top drivers were in position to win yesterday’s Daytona 500.

Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch both whiffed.

But the fact that they, along with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, had three of the strongest cars in the field represented a quantum leap for the foreign automaker.

Stewart was disappointed but said he hopes the Gibbs Toyotas’ strong performance in the season-opener might foretell good things for the rest of the year.

“I didn’t know what to expect in all honesty,” Stewart said. “Because you don’t know when you go into a new program what you’re going to have until you get it. I can say I’m pleasantly surprised for sure.”

Stewart’s team defected from Chevrolet in the offseason, immediately strengthening a Toyota stable that lacked a marquee team.

The move paid off for both parties yesterday. Busch led a race-high 86 laps, Stewart had a chance to win at the end, and Hamlin looked like a contender until his car sustained body damage. He finished 17th.

It was a remarkable change from Toyota’s Daytona debut last year, when Michael Waltrip Racing was at the center of a cheating scandal, only four Toyotas made the field and none finished higher than 22nd.

Toyota executives were happy with their strong showing yesterday.

“Hey, we didn’t ask for any guarantee,” said Lee White, senior vice president of Toyota Racing Development. “We asked to be in position where we could have a shot.”

They certainly did.

Stewart took the lead after a restart with three laps to go but tried to hook up with Kyle Busch on the backstretch on the final lap. It turned out to be a bad move as Penske Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch sailed by on the outside, and Newman drove to Victory Lane.

Stewart finished third with Busch fourth.

Not a win but not bad considering the work the Gibbs team had to do in the offseason.

“All of us were very concerned because we had to do a lot in a very short period of time, and I felt like it was great teamwork,” Joe Gibbs said. “I think people, all of our other Toyota teammates and ourselves, everybody worked extremely hard. I think for Toyota it was a good start. For our race teams, we’re excited about this year, and we’ve got to go week to week.”

Under particular pressure was the Gibbs engine shop, which was forced to make the switch to a different engine.

Consider Stewart impressed.

“It was a monumental feat to get us in the position that they got us in today,” Stewart said. “We had the fastest cars, both Kyle and I, and they flew. That’s all horsepower right there.”

The Gibbs cars are Toyota’s flagship, but other Toyota teams performed well yesterday, too.

Red Bull Racing’s Brian Vickers finished 12th, and Michael Waltrip Racing’s Dale Jarrett (16th) and David Reutimann (18th) were close behind. Waltrip was 29th.

If those teams can stay in the top 35 in points after five races, they will be guaranteed a starting spot and won’t have to worry about qualifying.

“This is very important,” Vickers said. “It gives us great momentum.”

But what works at Daytona doesn’t necessarily work at other tracks, and it remains to be seen whether Toyota’s improvement will be as remarkable at short and intermediate tracks.

“This thing is just completely different,” White said. “Daytona is the biggest race of the season. But it doesn’t typically have that much effect on the rest of the season.”

For now, White is happy.

“We’re pleased we didn’t come here and didn’t embarrass the company,” White said.

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