Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday March 18, 2007
When Toyota made its debut in Nextel Cup, everyone knew the road to glory would be long and difficult. Bumps were not feared; they were expected as the sport’s first foreign manufacturer earned its stripes on racing's toughest level of competition. But with the car dealer celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, joining the NASCAR's upper echelon still figured to be a crowning achievement by the time the season was all said and done.
Two months in, Toyota's still looking for that crown.
With four races already in the books, NASCAR's newest manufacturer has done everything it can to turn its Nextel Cup debut into its own personal nightmare. The first problems they encountered weren't necessarily their fault; still, after a week of wiping egg off their face in the wake of the Michael Waltrip cheating scandal, you’d think there was nowhere to go but up for the Camry bunch. Instead, the road the Toyota's been sliding down has simply gotten rockier.
Consider the individual subplots surrounding some of their seven teams on the circuit, developing more twists and turns then your local daytime drama:
- There's Bill Davis' second team with Jeremy Mayfield, in clear desperation mode after failing to qualify for each of its four attempts this season. Derick Finley was fired as crew chief after only race two, and even putting longtime BDR guru Tommy Baldwin in his place hasn't turned things around. Always temperamental, one can only imagine the Mayfield firestorm behind the scenes at BDR as he’s forced to spend each Sunday watching from his couch. Certainly, not the debut new NASCAR sponsor 360 OTC was expecting; the question with them is quickly becoming how long they put up with DNQs before those logos get pulled off the car.
- There's the sad story of Dale Jarrett, who at 50 years old put the final two years of his career in the hands of a $20 million dollar deal and a new car, leaving Robert Yates Racing after a championship and two Daytona 500 wins together. In February, that team he left won the pole for the 500 while Jarrett started shotgun on the field, in need of a champion's provisional; he's utilized that provisional every time this season, starting no better than 43rd while running like he's driving the UPS truck during the raceâ€¦for real. Crew chief Matt Borland is likely looking for any way possible to sneak back into the Penske Racing Shops, while Jarrett's career seems destined to end on the chapter of Veterans Who Stayed Too Long.
- Of course, when all else fails there's the continuing saga of Waltrip. Failing to qualify for every race since Daytona, the No. 55 team has faced increased scrutiny and a mountain of criticism in the aftermath of the cheating scandal. David Hyder's continuing employment with the team and his silence surrounding what went wrong only keeps the problem in central focus, and Waltrip seems busier with his responsibilities elsewhere than the one that should be number one on the priority listâ€¦running his own team. When you're four races into the season and find yourself with negative points, something is very, very wrong.
That's just touching the surface of a year that's seen all seven of Toyota's programs fail to finish higher than 10th in any Cup race. Only one team (Jarrett) finds itself in position to lock up a spot in the Top 35 in owner points after Bristol; the rest will likely be forced to qualify on speed every Friday for the foreseeable future, and most will continually fail to reach that bar.
What seems to be the problem? Certainly, equipment and personnel come to mind, but something as simple as building momentum may be the biggest issue. Simply put, nobody on any of these teams has been able to put together two consistent quality finishes. When Brian Vickers scored the Camry's first ever Top 10 at California, he followed that up the next week by failing to qualify at Las Vegas. When Waltrip's team put through an amazing effort to make the field at Daytona, they followed that up by missing the next three events. When Dave Blaney has put together qualifying runs showing future potential, he's followed them up mechanical failures and more DNFs - 3 - than any driver on the circuit.
Lack of momentum, of course, translates into lack of confidence, a clear pattern when you talk to any of the drivers involved with this struggle.
“I don't know really what is right or wrong,” said Dave Blaney after finishing 27th, his fourth consecutive finish outside the Top 25. “I'm sure we'll take a look at everything and try to figure it out.”
“It just seems like for every one step forward, we take two steps back," said David Reutimann after crashing out of his run. "We changed everything under the sun before the race, to have (the car) anywhere near remotely drivable was an accomplishment (in itself).”
“With the way the setups are nowadays, with coil-binding springs and things like that, all you have to be is a little bit off and you're not even close.”
Sadly, close isn't the word to describe Toyota's current situation. As far as making their mark in NASCAR's top level, they're not even remotely in the ballpark. And unless there's a miracle turnaround in how they've developed the Car of Tomorrow, this season seems destined to become one of the worst for a manufacturer in recent history.
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