The Frontstretch: Toyota: Ruling The Roost of NASCAR In Both Competition and Compelling Personalities by Vito Pugliese -- Tuesday July 1, 2008

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Toyota: Ruling The Roost of NASCAR In Both Competition and Compelling Personalities

The Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Tuesday July 1, 2008

 

The New NASCAR: Some love it, others revile it, but everybody’s got an opinion. The Car of Tomorrow has its share of detractors and supporters, as does the television coverage and what has become the “over commercialization” of the sport in recent years (Which always strikes me as funny — here’s a sport that is based almost entirely on corporate America’s advertising and sponsorship dollars, and it’s accused of being over commercialized). Anyways, now that car brand identity has all but vanished, we are essentially watching 43 billboards race against the backdrop of a four hour long infomercial each week.

So, if you’re in the boat of those that think the sport’s been tilting in the wrong direction as of late, the last bastion of hope for NASCAR appears to be the thing that has driven it for so many years: the personalities within the sport itself.

Say what you will about Brian France’s brief tenure at the tiller of the USS LicenseToPrintMoney, but at least he had the good sense to recognize (or be beat into submission) that the only thing able to sustain NASCAR during this period of declining attendance, sagging ratings, and an economic climate not conducive to travel or disposable income are the drivers and crew chiefs who race the now near indistinguishable 43 cars that line up each Sunday. These people that fans back with a blind loyalty not seen outside of a Hezbollah fundraiser along the Gaza strip are the key attribute to a sport that has had more than its fair share of criticism in recent years — be it capricious rules enforcement, track homogenization, spontaneous yellow flags, or issues with diversity.

That being said, it seems as if the most interesting drivers out there are those who drive for the newest member to the party, a member that was met with quite a bit of skepticism in its own right: Toyota. These cars may not have the past connections longtime fans are looking for; but what they lack in history, they make up for in hiring wheelmen happy to break the cookie cutter mold.

Chief among those competitors is current Sprint Cup point leader Kyle Busch. Right now, his talent has triumphed over all else; love him or hate him, the kid can flat out drive. Don’t think so? He was always fast in the No. 5 car at Hendrick Motorsports, winning four races during his tenure with the team. After leaving, he’s won five races this season to date with JGR — leading all drivers in Sprint Cup — and for all intents and purposes, should probably have won eight or nine. For Busch, to have done this well before the halfway point of the season in a new ride is nothing short of remarkable.

But it’s Busch’s personality that proves an equal match for his powerful performance. He is brash, outspoken, and — unlike Jeff Gordon’s wooden and laconic windowfront mannequin responses to fans booing him in the late 1990s — he gives it right back to his detractors, saluting them with faux tear wiping and heart holding, taking bows, and waving back with a smile on his face.

In the meantime, Busch’s teammate Tony Stewart has become the surly, crotchety next-door neighbor of sorts. Short with the media when things go awry and never one to mince words when wronged, Stewart says what 90 percent of the drivers wish they had the courage to say when a microphone is jammed in their face seconds upon exiting what was once a $250,000 racing machine, but is now little more than a candidate to become a container for some Campbell’s Thick & Chunky. Stewart may have put a little meat on those bones over the past year and a half, but the real weight he carries is with his voice as much as his car.

Moving from pressing the issue to peddling products, the twin Red Bull cars of Brian Vickers and A.J. Allmendinger have the might of the largest marketing program on the planet pushing their team each week. In the past, they weren’t the fastest cars on the track, but they did project the image of being the hippest. And now that they are starting to hit their stride and show signs of being contenders, their allure is that much more appealing week in, week out.

Toyota’s done a nice job of setting up its future in only its second year going Cup racing: while current veterans like Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch dominate in 2008, future prospects like Scott Speed (above) are scoring victories in the Truck Series while being groomed for better rides a few years down the line.

Staying in the same vein with Red Bull, enter their newest entry to American stock car racing: Scott Speed. The winner of Red Bull’s contest to see which driver from the United States got the opportunity to fail on a grand scale in front of all of Europe in Formula One, Speed was spared by Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz and given a second chance at life in cars with fenders and tonneau covers. Currently splitting time with other drivers in the Bill Davis Racing No. 22 Toyota Tundra, Speed scored his first NASCAR victory less than a month ago in Dover, Delaware. Mugging for the camera as soon as he removed his helmet, Speed displayed a side to fans that is as different today as Tim Richmond was in 1986 — and in the process, revealed an eccentricity of painting toenails, as far from the norm in this Southern-bred sport as you can possibly get. While Speed has not made his Cup debut, it is only a matter of time before he gets the call to move up and join another former Formula One driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, in the top echelons of stock car success.

And over in that Truck Series, there’s no competition as far as top manufacturer: Toyota reigns supreme. While the Big Three have either scaled back or largely abandoned factory support of their Truck teams, Toyota continues to move forward unabated, harboring the organizations that are consistently the fastest on the track along with drivers that have become the face of a series that, while considered a stepping stone, is more like NASCAR’s version of the Senior Tour.

But within that success lies the uniqueness of drivers different from your run-of-the-mill wheelman. Toyota’s got Johnny Benson, Jr., who’s the series’ Most Popular Driver — and for good reason. The soft-spoken native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is consistently among the frontrunners each week, having scored 10 wins in the last three seasons and doing so in a manner that runs contrary to the rough and tumble, “anything goes” persona that the Truck Series implies.

Along with Benson is teammate Mike Skinner, the best driver to never have won a Cup race (save for an exhibition event in Japan in 1997) who narrowly missed winning the Truck Series title last year. Skinner is good-natured, always provides a great sound bite, and is seemingly in the middle of the action — regardless of where it occurs on the track. And when Skinner does win, one can always count on a colorful greeting from wife Angie in Victory Lane.

Finally, there is Toyota’s Onion: Todd Bodine. The 2006 Truck Series champion has notched 13 wins since becoming a full-time driver in 2005, and has done well to carry on the Bodine name in NASCAR since the retirement of brothers Geoff and Brett.

Not to be forgotten amidst all this is the sport’s Triple-A league, the Nationwide Series, which is, in essence, struggling to find its identity. Since many Cup drivers pull double duty there, the list of Toyota triumphs becomes a bit redundant. However, there is one driver in particular who bears mention — and that is 18-year old Joey Logano. Given the nickname “Sliced Bread,” Logano has made four Nationwide Series starts to date, and has wasted no time in verifying his moniker — he’s got two poles and one race win already to his credit. In fact, Logano’s career has gotten off to such a strong start in NASCAR that many have tabbed him to replace Stewart in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing machine should he move on to pursue other opportunities. Whatever happens next for the youngster, it’s clear there has been perhaps no more hoopla and hype surrounding a driver in NASCAR since Jeff Gordon exited Bill Davis’ Fords to drive Rick Hendrick’s Chevrolets over 15 years ago.

It can be argued that Toyota has dominated all three series thus far this season. Busch has the most wins and is leading the Sprint Cup points standings while Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Busch, and Logano have combined to win 12 of 16 races so far this year on the Nationwide side. In the Truck Series, Toyotas won the first three races of the season, and if not for a gust of wind or a balky transmission, Johnny Benson would have claimed three wins in a row and maintained the points lead he had leaving Michigan. But although the vehicles are fast, the one common denominator that links them all together are the uniqueness of the guys behind the wheel. Not only have they succeeded on the track, but have become the face of their respective divisions off the track, as well. Love it or hate it, it’s a strong impression filled with strong personalities that shows no signs of tailing off anytime soon.

Or so they hope.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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Douglas
07/01/2008 07:53 AM
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ABSTRACT THINKING, (on my part)!

RE: RED BULL!

I vow never to buy any Red Bull, (had some given to me several times on a cross country motorcycle trip), but the real story about Red Bull is I feel I am being ripped off if I bought any!

Has everyone payed attention to just how much money they spend on different sports! Virtually everything with a motor has a well funded Red Bull sponsorship! Plus other sports, again, almost all sports.

The profits on a can of
RED BULL must be absolutely ENORMOUS! At what, $2.00/can retail, the cost to manufacture must be about a penny!

Thus, if they have that kind of money to spread around the world based on the fleecing of their customers, one of their customers AIN’T GOING TO BE ME!

See, my point!

Gee, I hope so!

Mike In NH
07/01/2008 07:57 AM
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No arguing Toyota is dominating Truck – and has been for years – but I’d say that it’s JGR dominating Nationwide, not Toyota – all the Toyota wins have been either by JGR cars (particularly the 20) or the 32 (for all intents and purposes, a JGR satellite operation). The rest of the Toy teams haven’t done much better than last year.

Same for Cup. It’s all JGR, with brief appearances by Red Bull near the front, while Bill Davis and MWR are still struggling to stay in the Top 35.

Take away JGR and Toyota’s season would be at best marginally better than last year in Cup and Nationwide (and Chevy’d have a lot more wins and be as dominant as ever – boy, they blew it letting JGR get away). JGR helped DESIGN the R07 Chevy engine, they’re arguably the best shop in NASCAR – I say that because Hendrick has a lot more data and history to work with using Chevy, and they’re not with a new manufacturer this year, yet they’re not running any better than JGR with a new manufacturer with little background data – so it should be no surprise that they’ve been able to run well. But the other teams, not so much. I think this is all a tribute to JGR’s skills and drivers more than the manufacturer’s contributions. Sure, Toyota might give them whatever they need, but the team needs to know what to ask for, and JGR clearly does, a lot more than the other Toyota teams.

You can’t really say that Toyota is dominating Cup, however, if you look at the total win count (even if they seem to run up front more often):
Toyota: 6
Chevy: 4
Dodge: 4
Ford: 3

While clearly JGR is the best TEAM this year if you go by win count – all six Toyota wins are theirs – Chevy and (surprisingly) Dodge aren’t too far behind in terms of manufacturer wins.

Steve Cloyd
07/01/2008 10:52 AM
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Am I alone in really caring less about “personalities”? I want good, hard, racing every week.

“Personalities” are just a side thing to me, and if it’s going to be your main selling point, well, wrestling has a hold on that market already.

Fix the frickin’ racing. Get rid of aero-push. Stop dropping tracks where the racing is good for tracks where it sucks. Stop changing the window dressing in the form of “the chase” and top35 rule and fix the real problems. Your new car hasn’t done it NASCAR.

Douglas
07/01/2008 11:24 AM
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Well stated “Steve Cloyd”!

FYI, if your so inclined, “ktharp@nascar.com”, is a good one to e-mail your thoughts to!

mike
07/01/2008 02:02 PM
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Thank the racing gods for Toyota and Kyle Bush.

First, Toyota for being able and willing to take on Chevy. Nothing against Chevy but I want to see competition. Ford is barely hanging on and Dodge seems to be lost. Dodge was supposed to have a new engine available and it keeps getting pushed back.

Second, for Kyle. The reason I’m more excited about watching nascar now than I have been in 15 years. I sure hope he wins the championship so he can thank Mr. Hendrick for making room at the inn.

Larry
07/01/2008 11:01 PM
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Don’t agree with Jack Roush on much but he was right on about Toyota and what they would do to the sport. They are spending probably ten times as much as any manufacturer in Nascar along with unlimited testing. I read on Jayskis that they had rented Nashville Super Speedway seventeen times this year for testing. The problem is the other manufacturers are struggling financially and can’t match the money Toyota is spending. Do you want to see an all Toyota Show with them dominating year end and year out. Remember this is just their second year in cup and they already are dominating. Two of Chevy’s wins were fuel mileage. Dodge had one Sunday so don’t think the manufacturers are that close. How come Busch didn’t run this good with the so called powerhouse Hendrick Chevy Team? Toyota has definitely got a big time advantage and I’m really surprised that the other makes are not complaining about that advantage. I know one thing, when this thing keeps being the Toyota Racing Series is the day I give it up. I also think that’s one reason for some of the empty seats. There are still a lot of us Dodge, Chevy, and Ford Fans out here and if Brian France doesn’t start realizing that it’s going to bite him in the butt.

Kenneth
07/02/2008 12:21 AM
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‘Toyota Racing Series’?
Pray tell, (and this was covered in a comment earlier) please tell me the last time a non-Gibbs Toyota won a Cup race? I also notice you failed to mention Roush’s Fords, which have been just as strong as the Gibbs Toyotas (I also recall two of KyBusch’s wins being due to something happening to Edwards, who was dominating at least a couple of his wins early on). Let’s face it, it’s the Gibbs chassis shop that has hit on something, not some so-called mythical monstrous Toyota horsepower advantage (Kyle Busch has even said that the JGR powerplants aren’t quite as powerful as what he had at Hendrick), especially when you consider at the one track that takes into account basically horsepower and nothing else (Talladega), a car failed to make it into the show powered by one of those very JGR Toyota motors.

sparxmoore
07/02/2008 09:25 AM
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YA GETS WHAT YA PAYS FOR
and toyota bought and paid for NA$CAR!

Larry Burton
07/02/2008 04:54 PM
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Kenneth, Ford along with Chevy and Dodge have been in Nascar almost forever, I would expect them to win a few races especially with their talent of drivers. This is just Toyota’s 2nd year in cup and look what they are doing. We all knew Micheal Waldrip, Red Bull, and some of the other Toyota Teams were not going to be very good but compare Gibbs last year with a Chevy and this year with Toyotas. Compare laps led, wins, etc. People are saying its that Kyle is so great is one reason the Toyotas are doing so well. Then compare Kyle driving a Chevy with Hendricks last year. How many laps did he lead and races did he win driving for Hendricks with a team and manufacturer who has been in Nascar for years. Do you see where I’m coming from? And, If Toyota gets another top team or two then if nothing changes don’t see many wins at all for other manufacturers. Nascar needs to change their name to the Toyota Racing Series because that’s what it’s becoming. Again, I do think this will hurt attendance as there are still a lot of Ford, Dodge, and Chevy Fans out here. So tell me again how dominant Kyle was in a Powerhouse Hendrick Chevy last year compared to this year. And, Not only in Cup but truck, and Nationwide Series too. Money can buy anything and Jack Rousch was right on with his comments about Toyota. I remember times when a lot of manufacturers were not in Nascar-Ford, Chevy, Dodge and when it gets to be one manufacturer winnning everything it eventually hurts attendence. Maybe the Japanese will start coming over here to races to fill the tracks up to watch Toyota Dominate. Time will tell but if you look at the article above its about Toyotas dominance in all the Nascar Series. Guess will see but I definitely know when it becomes the Toyota Series I will not support, attend Nascar Races as I did in the past when my manufacturer was not involved in Racing. Wasn’t Brian France Driving a Lexus when he had his little accident a year or two ago. Wonder who makes the Lexus. On, now I remember.

Kenneth
07/02/2008 08:14 PM
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If you’re going to bring up how Kyle Busch did last year in a Hendrick Chevy (which itself is rather silly considering where that 5 car is in points right now; if anything, that proves how much of it is Kyle’s talent and not so much how much his team’s manufacturer is spending), why don’t we look at the man he replaced, J.J. Yeley? He didn’t exactly set the world on fire with his JGR Chevy last year, and this year he’s doing much worse in what is by all means a JGR Toyota. Explain that?

Around this time last year I seem to remember very clearly the Gibbs cars being the only ones who could match up with Hendrick as far as the COT was concerned last year, and I remember Denny Hamlin specifically having multiple chances to win races but little problems doing him in (much like what’s happening with Smoke this year), and Smoke was starting his hot summer stretch, so I don’t see how JGR was any different last year than this year with the sole exception of Kyle Busch instead of J.J. Yeley (along with the added influx of cash from Mars/Masterfoods). So, with just about every non-Kyle Busch variable the same (and the results about the same, as Hamlin and Stewart aren’t significantly better or worse than they were at this time last year), the emergence of the #18 team is suddenly an example of how Toyota is suddenly a dominant typhoon sweeping through the lands of NASCAR? The only other Toyota team that has improved significantly over last year has been the #83 TRB car, and that’s more due to what Jay Frye has been doing than Toyota spending millions (or billions, as the typical NASCAR fan would like to believe) on the program.

It’s funny yet depressing at the same time to see how biased people are against Toyota. It’s on the same level of ignorance as Bernie Ecclestone’s constant ‘we don’t need America’ mindset (and accompanying disparaging remarks).

Larry
07/03/2008 12:47 AM
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Kenneth, I’m not gonna argue with you about this but JJ Yeley and Casey Mears are not in the same league as Kyle. Again, I ask you, compare Kyle in the powerhouse Hendrick Chevy last year and in a Toyota this year. Nuff said. Also, I’ll bet if Mark Martin goes over to Hendrick in the five car it will run better than it is now. Don’t know that Mark will win a championship but I do think he will run better than who’s in the car now. Remember, Mark got robbed by Nascar in last years Daytona 500 driving for Haas with Hendrick Power. I stand by what I have said.

Kenneth
07/03/2008 08:24 AM
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But what have you said? You claim this has become the Toyota Racing Series, and the only evidence you have to back that up is because Kyle Busch is dominating and attribute it ENTIRELY to Toyota’s spending or whatever. You’re also acting like he was running 22nd each week last year in Hendrick’s third car; I’m sorry, but if you win the first COT race ever and finish 5th in the standings while being a lame duck basically the whole way (and while your teammates are absolutely making a mockery of the series by how dominant they were), that’s awfully good.

Just because Yeley isn’t as talented a driver as Busch doesn’t discount my point; your point is ENTIRELY that Kyle Busch in a Chevy is less than Kyle Busch in a Toyota. I respond with my point that J.J. Yeley in a Toyota is less than J.J. Yeley in a Chevy, which contradicts your point. It has nothing to do with Yeley vs. Busch, it has to do with your point of ‘Driver switches from Chevy to Toyota, driver dominates’ which is laughable itself as it doesn’t take into account silly things like chemistry or a new team and crew chief.

Larry
07/04/2008 01:31 AM
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Kenneth, the point is Kyle was with the best team in Nascar last year with Hendricks in a Chevy. Now he is with a another quality team but in a Toyota and his stats are definitely better this year than last. Sure, I know they have switched teams but it wasn’t like he went from a sorry team to a good team. Chemistry does play some part in it but Kyle has won in all three series this year driving Toyotas with different crews the only difference being the make of car which tells me something. Compare his stats and you will see it has to be the car make. Also, look how many wins Kyle would have won except for some cars he lost on his own, some flat tires, and if he and Tony had worked together would have won The Great American Race in a great Japanese car. Tony Steward has had terrible luck this year. Just look at Loudon where he dominated and still lost the race to weather. And, he has also had some flat tires that cost him races. Denny Hamlin absolutely dominated Richmond until a tire robbed him of the win. IF not for a few cicumstances mention. This year would be a joke for everyone else except Gibbs Toyota Teams. The only exception may be the races that Edwards dominated. That has to be pretty amazing for a second year cup team to dominate the cup series like Toyota is doing against the established teams of Ford, Dodge, and Chevy. Also, at least two of Chevys wins came on fuel miliage-Phoenix and Michigan. Another Chevy win came at Bristol after Busch spun hisself out and Tony got bumped at the end of the race after they dominated. I was there and saw Burton sneak in and get the race. For a second year manufacturer to dominate like this after they had a so so year last year with another manufacturer tells me that there is an advantage somewhere. The aerodynamics are about the same with these COT’s so it’s left up to the drivers and the engines. I believe Toyota has got an engine advantage. Remember, Toyota built their engine from scratch. They never had a two valve, cam in block V-8 engine until they built this engine for Nascar. The other manufacturers have been using modified car engines not racing engines. Remember, this is just Toyota’s Second year in cup. Wait a few more years and see if this doesn’t become the Toyota Racing Series unless Nascar throttles them back some. I don’t look for that to happen with the money they paid Nascar to let them in a reported 94 million dollars. I’ve said it before, I don’t believe much of what Jack Roush says but he was right on about what he said about Toyota and what they were going to do to the sport. Brian France had a little accident I believe last year. What was he driving? I believe it was a Lexus SUV. Wonder who makes them?

Contact Vito Pugliese