Toyota may have looked strong all this week in single-car runs, but all but four of those teams are far from being able to breathe easy with Speedweeks now one month away. Sure, they’ve been fast in the two sessions of winter testing at Daytona, but the three Joe Gibbs Racing entries of Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, as well as Dave Blaney – driver of the No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota for Bill Davis Racing – are the only teams that are guaranteed a spot in the sport’s most prestigious race.
Those inside the Top 35 in owner points following the final event at Homestead last year were guaranteed a starting spot for each of the first five races of 2008, and while the Gibbs cars did so under the Chevrolet banner, Blaney’s No. 22 team was the lone Toyota team to finish inside the bubble last season. With a starting spot assured, you might expect the team to take it easy; but they’ve done anything but, running strong in Preseason Thunder testing throughout the month of January.
Recording the fastest time in Monday’s afternoon session, Blaney is pleased to know that he can relax while the other Toyota teams have to sweat out Daytona 500 Bud Pole Qualifying and the Duel 150 qualifying races.
“It was huge (to finish inside the Top 35). If you came to the 500 without that, it’d be a tough road,” he said Tuesday afternoon.
Blaney experienced several of the trials and tribulations that all of the Toyota teams went through in their inaugural season last year. After recording DNFs in each of his first three races, he immediately found himself having to qualify on time.
While that led to three disappointing DNQs in 2007, a third-place finish in the fall race at Talladega, followed by a sixth-place run at Lowe’s, helped propel the team into the Top 35.
He remained there the rest of the season, ending up finishing 34th in owner points.
Following up that ’07 success, Blaney was one of many Camrys to run strong this week in single-car runs. The No. 22 car was seventh-fastest in Monday’s morning session and fastest in the afternoon session before coming in 12th-quickest in the AM session Tuesday.
While several critics believe that Toyota’s early success can be attributed to minimal tech inspection in testing, Blaney does not feel that’s the case.
“[Toyota’s] restrictor-plate program is really good, and it’s been showing. All of the Toyotas have been up front here both weeks in single-car runs,” he said. “We’ve been making a lot of power. I don’t know if it’ll translate into the Daytona 500 – it’s gonna help a little bit – but it’s not gonna be everything.”
“You’ve gotta have a little bit of everything to run good in the 500, but the Toyota has definitely improved, no doubt.”
As for on-track results, Toyota again took 11 of the top 13 spots in the morning session Tuesday, but it was a Chevrolet that recorded the fastest single-car time since testing began, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran a lap of 185.820 mph in the No. 88 Chevrolet.
As those single-car runs concluded, surprises popped up behind him: four of the top-10 cars in the session came out of the Michael Waltrip Racing stable, while Stewart was the lone JGR car to place in the top five.
A three-time champion organization, Gibbs is the early favorite to lead the Toyota brigade after switching from Chevy last year; however, it’s still too early to tell if it will translate to success for the other Toyota teams.
“It remains to be seen because we haven’t even run a race yet,” Blaney said. “The switch is going to help Toyota as a whole, but whether it’s going to be a benefit to the other teams I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Daytona Testing Results – Day Two, Session Two
Top-Three AM Speeds (Single-Car)
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88): 185.820 mph
- Michael Waltrip (No. 55): 185.357
- Brian Vickers (No. 83): 186.638
Top-Three PM Speeds (Drafting)