The Frontstretch: Toyota's Preseason Testing Numbers: The Shape of Things To Come? by Vito Pugliese -- Tuesday February 5, 2008

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Toyota's Preseason Testing Numbers: The Shape of Things To Come?

Vito Pugliese · Tuesday February 5, 2008


"The Beast is out there….and he's hungry tonight."

That line — from the motion picture "Platoon" — takes place during the calm before the storm in an exchange between the characters Chris and King. It sets the scene as an eerie prelude of what will devolve into a climactic firefight at the film’s conclusion.

It could also be used to describe what awaits NASCAR Sprint Cup teams who do not field Toyotas.

During preseason testing at Daytona, Las Vegas, and California, there was no mistaking that a good number of Toyotas put up some rather impressive numbers — a far cry from a year ago, when the manufacturer proved the laughing stock of Speedweeks.

The consistency on top of the boards has truly been something to see. At Daytona, half of the Top 10 fastest single-car runs and six of the Top 10 cars in the draft were Toyotas. In Las Vegas, the emerging Toyota threat began to take shape in each session. On the first day in the morning session, Denny Hamlin posted the fastest speed, with Kyle Busch posting the fifth. In the afternoon, Kyle Busch bested fellow Toyota teammate Tony Stewart by nearly .20 of a second. … and four of the Top 5 fastest afternoon times were by Stewart or Busch. The next day's AM session had four of the Top 6 cars as Toyotas.

What gives?

Last year, Toyota couldn't get a whiff of anything besides the wall or the lift gate on the trailer; and now, all of a sudden they're outrunning the established teams of the sport. Call it “the excellence of execution” or whatever else, but NASCAR's new car configuration is playing right into their hands.

It’s a far different feeling from last year, when Toyota was on a crash course (no pun intended) with Team Red Bull, Bill Davis Racing, and Michael Waltrip Racing. They had to get not just one…but two different styles of cars developed from scratch in the most competitive racing series on Earth, and it was something that just wasn’t going to happen successfully right off the bat.

Factor in that their flagship teams were new with no points to fall back on and three cars were coupled with rookie drivers, and the recipe for disaster assumed the form of an appetizer. The entree that followed was served up piping hot, as Michael Waltrip Racing failed to qualify for a combined 38 events amongst three teams, while Team Red Bull missed a total of 32 races. Even when teams did make the race, all the Toyota drivers were routinely slow, with many wrecking or blowing engines during qualifying. When they would make a race, they were usually the first ones to exit.

Call them growing pains or whatever you wish — but trust me, 2007 for Toyota wasn’t pretty.

But now that the Car of Tomorrow is the Car of Today, the Camry comes into 2008 on a more level playing field with the other manufacturers. With just one car to focus on, to build and improve, the only thing Toyota Racing Development was missing was a powerhouse team to make use of their vast swath of information.

Enter Joe Gibbs Racing. Winners of three Cup championships since 2000, the team clearly knows how to get the job done. It’s a Who’s Who of driving talent; the team is home to Denny Hamlin, one of the most capable young drivers the sport has seen come along in quite some time, and Tony Stewart, the driver who is arguably the A.J. Foyt of this generation. New to the Joe Gibbs Racing fold for 2008 is Kyle Busch; it’s the mercurial young wheelman who, even among those by who he’s reviled, will admit that there is no one out there with more raw talent than himself.

The addition of Joe Gibbs Racing to the Toyota Racing family should bring the manufacturer the most bang for their buck and immediate on-track success.

Joe Gibbs Racing is a top tier team that has long since established itself among the elite of the industry; with them, Toyota now has an organization that can finally exploit its vast resources. JGR is the new face of Toyota, and the one who can get them into Victory Lane the quickest — possibly right out of the gate.

The new car configuration was supposed to help level the playing field for teams, reducing the cost associated with fielding a fleet of 12 cars with bodies tweaked and massaged beyond recognition. Unfortunately, the CoT actually favors the larger teams, since there is now a smaller well from which to work. Engineering is what is needed to go in there and extract more speed. Add to that Toyota’s “blank check” approach coming into the sport, can you really see them not figuring this out soon if they haven't already?

And then, there’s the revamped engine. Toyotas make over 30hp more than their contemporaries when it comes to horsepower; sure, you can carp and moan about power curves, torque, and reliability, but they also now have one of the best engine shops in the business at their disposal with Mark Cronquist and company at Joe Gibbs Racing. However, an engine is nothing more than a fancy air pump; what can be applied to a Chevrolet engine certainly can (and will) be adapted to a Toyota. Toyota Racing Development pushed the envelope and the rulebook when designing their engine in the first place; now they have another set of eyes and hands involved to make it that much better.

With the emergence of Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota working in concert, what you also have now is the 2nd tier teams of Bill Davis Racing, Team Red Bull, and Michael Waltrip Racing reaping the benefits. A wise man once said that a rising tide floats all ships, and Jack Roush once said that when Toyota goes racing, they do so as if they're going to war. Everyone gets access to the same information, and no expense is spared. Yes, the teams are independent of each other, but as in the Truck Series, all teams work together for one common goal. TRD builds the engines for their Truck teams and a majority of the Nationwide and Cup teams that it fields; so if there's a secret out there, don't expect it to remain so for long.

The bottom line is the Sprint Cup Series is still the most competitive form of racing in the world today. With the money and resources that Toyota is investing into it in the midst of an economy that is showing signs of nosing over — that could change quickly. The Car of Tomorrow was designed to act like a Craftsman Truck — a machine that was hearty and was supposed to put the driver back into the equation. Toyota drivers won 13 of 25 Truck races last year, and won 12 events in 2006. They have the most money, the best engines, and now they have Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin;arguably three of the most talented drivers in the sport today. But still, What was feared among many in the NASCAR community when Toyota’s involvement in the Cup series was announced may soon come to fruition.

The Beast is out there.

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©2000 - 2008 Vito Pugliese and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

M. B. Voelker
02/05/2008 09:12 AM

If this “Toyota dominance” should actually come to be, I don’t want to hear a peep from anyone who has been supporting Hendrick/Chevy as they won everything in sight. ;)

Margo L
02/05/2008 09:22 AM

The “ blank check “ description of Toyota in racing is a bit misleading . Believe me , TRD doesn’t just throw money away . They are certainly prepared to spend money to achieve results , but which manufacturer isn’t .
To the surprise of no one , Michael Waltrip and Red Bull had miserable seasons . Bill Davis did a very credible job . But now we have one year of experience for the Toyota teams , identical cars to everyone else , and one of the top teams in the sport on board . And with Gibbs sharing information with all of the other Toyota teams , the tide may be turning . If nothing else , maybe the tv analysts will have something else to talk about instead of droning on and on about Hendrick .

FS Kurt
02/05/2008 10:50 AM

I’m not disputing what you’re saying Vito, but Toyota’s biggest improvement was simply signing with a proven team. Last year they were with two startups and a team that certainly isn’t a powerhouse. Ultimately the team is going to make more difference than the manufacturer.

Also, while Toyotas have been impressive in Daytona testing, it’s one thing to test well and another to run well for 500 miles. And Daytona is a plate race, which means it’s rarely an indication of how well a team will do all year.

But that said, it’s usually wise to bet on Joe Gibbs.

02/05/2008 04:41 PM

I have no doubt that JGR will help Toyota’s efforts, but Toyota was improving their engines by the end of last season as it was. The teams had a lot to overcome and the lack of track time due to inability to qualify was what hurt them the most. It’s funny how Toyota’s presumed succes this year is already being handed to JGR’s drivers. Have any of them had to deal with subpar equipment and no owners points? I have noticed some in the media hedging their bets already by talking up Reutiman when at this time last year he was considered by most as a washed up never was. I doubt JGR’s drivers would have done any better in a Toyota last year than anyone else who was driving one. I am predicting that Michael and David will run as well as anyone else driving Toyotas as long a qualifying does not bite them in the end again.

scott oliver
02/05/2008 05:56 PM

toyota and the cot will suck most of the life from nascar.the cot cars and few short tracks left are running off long term fans of 30 years,like myself.when toy.starts to dominate with their new design v-8 and deep pockets many,many more fans will leave.then toyota will pull out leaving an empty shell.i hope they take the france’s money with them!

David L. Therou
02/05/2008 07:47 PM

If The Toyota’s do well fine. Then We will hear something other than hms constantly. Just show the cars not the announcers.

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