Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday April 30, 2006
The NASCAR season may be only eight races old, but Silly Season ’07 is already in full swing, and for obvious reasons, Toyota’s the talk of the town. Unlike in past years, when the number of new owners entering the sport has slowly dwindled, next year we could see six to eight fresh teams debut in NASCAR’s top level series, all of them sporting the Toyota logo on the front of their race cars.
With such an influx of new blood (and new manufacturing dollars) entering the sport, of course the biggest question concerns who’s going to fill the spots within the teams Toyota is diligently putting together. There are reports Toyota is simply offering an extra $100,000 to good people in high places on Nextel Cup teams to lure them away, meaning money would be no obstacle for any driver they’d want to hire. However, on the surface it seems this manufacturer’s got a problem. Since Silly Season 2005 was the equivalent of a giant tag sale with Nextel Cup drivers lined up on every table, most teams got smart and have each one of their drivers, new or old, signed up to long-term contracts they can’t exactly break after the Jamie McMurray "" Kurt Busch fiasco.
Because of that, what’s left on the market for Toyota, assuming Kevin Harvick signs a new contract with Richard Childress, isn’t the freshest fruit in the produce aisle. Dale Jarrett, one of the greatest drivers of the late 1990s but seven years removed from a Nextel Cup championship, appears to be a possible compromise candidate, and could take sponsor UPS with him wherever he goes. Fellow veteran and former Robert Yates teammate Ricky Rudd would also appear to be an option, but having spent almost half-a-year away from the circuit, there are the obvious questions of how rusty would Rudd be should he come out of retirement and run full-time once again in 2007.
While these drivers make decisions on their future, the gossip goes round and round in circles, with people around the garage area talking up a storm about who’s going to ride into town like a knight on a golden horse as Toyota’s flagship driver. Rudd"¦Jarrett"¦even Robby Gordon, everyone’s caught up simply looking for that diamond in the rough. Yet, no one’s stopped to ask the question"¦does Toyota already have their marquee driver sitting right in their lap? Don’t they already have the drivers they need already to make their transition to Cup a resounding success?
That’s an important question"¦because I think they do. Toyota’s been developing them for years, whetting their appetite on an opportunity to get back to Nextel Cup, at the highest level, with the best technological support.
During Toyota’s time in the Truck Series, they’ve quietly picked up three veteran drivers with significant Nextel Cup experience: Johnny Benson, Todd Bodine, and Mike Skinner. Those drivers, all in their 40s, share a series of amazing similarities. All three were cast aside from full-time rides in Nextel Cup at the end of 2003 at the height of the "young gun" movement where being 25 and bringing a sponsor got you all the money and equipment you’d ever need. Between the three men, they have 738 Nextel Cup starts, with just one Cup victory to show for it (Johnny Benson won at Rockingham for MB2 Motorsports back in 2002).
Of course, the fact these men didn’t have resounding success in their earlier Nextel Cup opportunities only makes them that much hungrier for one more shot. Smartly recognizing their Nextel Cup careers would be limited to also-ran teams if they continued to pursue rides there, all three chose to align themselves with Toyota as they entered the Truck Series, taking the chance Toyota would figure out how to conquer the Trucks and eventually decide to move up through the ranks. Bodine, especially, is making the most of his opportunity with Toyota, winning five of the last eight races with his Toyota-backed Truck Series team. Now leading the point standings, he hopes to add a Truck Series championship to a resume that includes 15 Busch Series victories"¦along with a handful of failures at the Cup level with startup teams that never materialized, or established teams that went south upon his arrival. No doubt, Bodine is looking beyond the Truck Series to rewrite that chapter.
"I still feel like I want to get in the Cup Series and prove that we can do it there," said Todd after Saturday’s victory. "But right now we’re enjoying what we’re doing. We’re running good and we’re going after a championship for Toyota."
As for Benson and Skinner, they run for Bill Davis Racing in the Truck Series and have both experienced limited degrees of success. Davis’ Cup operation has suffered as one of the first to align itself with Toyota, losing its Dodge manufacturing support and a $5 million dollar lawsuit for breach of contract. Still, Toyota is making every effort to ensure that one of its earliest supporters will be ready to come out of the box ready to roll in 2007. Don’t think Benson and Skinner don’t know of the tremendous opportunities that could open up there, the chance to grab one more opportunity at Nextel Cup with equipment that could quickly become top of the line.
Sometimes, a star is born when everyone else isn’t looking. Don’t be surprised if any of these three become the one Toyota’s looking for to lead them from a car on a drawing board to a program sitting in Nextel Cup Victory Lane. You heard it here first.
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