The Frontstretch: Toyota's Trio? Try These Three On For Size by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday April 30, 2006

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Toyota's Trio? Try These Three On For Size

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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Buzz
05/01/2006 12:34 PM
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Mike Spinner, Todd Blowdine, and Johnny Benson are in the truck series for a reason. None have the talent necessary to be successful in Cup. If these are Toyota’s “knights in shinning armor”, then Ford, Chevy, and Dodge will be crying all the way to victory lane.

Tyler
05/01/2006 05:25 PM
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JB can get it done in cup. Hes a patient driver not a sprint racer. Skinner dosn’t have the patientce for Cup, so not him. Bodine could just get it done with new stuff that should be top of the line. They can all drive that is no question. Waltrip will have two teams, and the 00 will probably go to Benson. the two are friends and waltrip wants excperiance, and Ruitimann and Miller will go Busch racing for the guy. The one guy I’m worried about is Dave Blaney. Will he get the shaft again? Will BD, give the two rides to Skinner and Benson if Waltrip gets Jarret or Rudd. Its still a question but NONE of those guys will be a surprise. Unless Hermie Sadler gets the second one for MWR. That would be a shocker.

Mike
05/01/2006 07:00 PM
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It would appear easier to buy credibility by poaching an existing team like Penske or MB2. Not that they will, but it would be a quicker route than promoting Craftsman guys.

G Price
05/01/2006 07:50 PM
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Benson, Bodine and Skinner could’nt spell cat if you gave them c&t. Benson drives like Ms Daisy, Bodine will make a good pace truck driver following Bretts success and Skinner has, well it’s Mike Skinner you do the math. Toyota will be smart about it’s Nextel debut. Dale Jarrett just needs to either color his hair and start commentating like his Dad and Brother Glen or actually drive the UPS trucks, they are about as fast as he is. I believe Harvick, R Gordon, Mears, and Wimmer would make excellent choices for Toyota.

Steve
05/01/2006 10:23 PM
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Well, here it is. Reading articles from other racing websites, there is a lot of talk about one of the BIG THREE pulling out of nascar next year. Here me out….Let’s say it’ Chevy (you know that’s who it is). If….if Chevy files bankruptcy and is bought by Toyota, then all of the driver problems for Toyota are solved. ALL Chevy teams convert to Toyota. One, take a real good look at the Camery’s front end, does it not look just like the Monte Carlo? Second, is there a chance the Chad Knaus got caught on purpose with the rigged window at Daytona so he could get suspended for 4 weeks to go work on the Camery? Makes you think. Plus, who is the biggest Toyota dealer in the Country? Yep, Rick Hendrick! Look for Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson and all other “HIGH PROFILE” chevy teams to be in the Camery next year.

tim
05/02/2006 05:46 AM
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Hendrick is not the largest toyota dealer in country.. Penske is.aka longo toyota in california.. hendrick is a big honda dealer.. aka the federal charges.. so k busch and r newman could make the switch… interesting

Brian
05/02/2006 04:06 PM
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I’m surprised, that Craven hasn’t been mentioned,after all he has won at each level and would bring a wealth of knowledge and as far as public relations he is one of the best in the business.

 

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