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2008 Season Preview: Will Toyota Become a Sophomore Sensation With Gibbs… Or Enter a Sophomore Slump?

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines! Hard to believe that command to start the 2008 Sprint Cup season is just 11 days away… and counting.

But as fans anxiously anticipate the end of another offseason, it’s time to get the blood racing and your mind fixated on another year of NASCAR. For the third straight year at Frontstretch, your favorite writers are taking the next week to preview the upcoming 2008 season, providing a look into the good, the bad, and the ugly expected to face the sport in the next nine months. We’ll get you thinking on six different questions we’ve been wondering about ourselves; and as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all… good humor. After all, what good are predictions if we’re not understanding enough to realize we could wind up completely wrong?

So, without further ado, here’s Part 2 of our preview… and if you missed Part 1, click here to catch up on what you missed.

Today’s Season Preview Topic: Toyota made a major effort to upgrade their teams in the offseason, making a blockbuster deal with Joe Gibbs Racing. But how much will the other teams in the Toyota fold benefit? Simply put, can anyone else other than JGR win a race this season in a Camry; and for that matter, can that three-car juggernaut compete for the championship themselves in only their first season following a major manufacturer switch?

Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief (Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)

Coming off of January testing, the grumbles I keep hearing and reading about focus on one thing more than anything else. No, it’s not the Car of Tomorrow, and it’s not Hendrick’s dominance; instead, it’s the Toyota Camry engine that has everyone crying foul before Speedweeks even begins.

Wow; what a difference a year makes. After a season to forget, the biggest pickup in the Toyota camp appears to be none other than JGR engine builder Mark Cronquist; and with the CoT providing equal chassis for all Sprint Cup programs, it’s horsepower more than handling that’s going to increasingly make the difference. And while I wonder how well JGR will work with others long-term – their drivers aren’t necessarily the type that want to even share information amongst themselves – the extra horsepower secrets Cronquist provides should be enough to get teams like Dave Blaney‘s No. 22 and Brian Vickers‘s No. 83 in position to become top-20 points contenders. A win is certainly not out of the question for either, and (I know you think I’m crazy) don’t forget about Michael Waltrip on the restrictor-plate tracks. Yes, I said it… Michael Waltrip.

As for JGR itself, three cars in the Chase is fairly realistic, and if you told me they combined for 10 wins and all finished in the top 10 in points, I wouldn’t be surprised. That championship may be out of reach for 2008, though; you’d have to think that with all that extra horsepower will come some initial reliability issues which could crop up just enough in the final ten races to bite them.

Kim DeHaven, Senior Editor (Tuesdays/Numbers Game)

The addition of the high-profile, high-dollar JGR teams to the Toyota family is great from a promotional standpoint, but the biggest boost to the Camry’s performance should be having a full season under their belt more than anything else.

Of course, the additional driver talent certainly won’t hurt things. The last time I looked, the Camry has wheels… which means Tony Stewart will drive it to the front. I look for him to make the Chase, although not seriously contend for the championship. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin should also score a few victories each, and Blaney could sneak in a win in his Caterpillar Camry. However, it will take another season or three before the other Toyota teams are contenders.

Cami Starr, Fantasy Racing Editor (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)

The addition of Gibbs to the Toyota camp is definitely a big plus for the other Toyota teams, given the resources that TRD and JGR have and the information that will filter down. Toyota is going to do everything in its power to make sure JGR doesn’t look like a bunch of fools for making the jump from GM; based on that alone, you have to expect an improvement from the Camrys this year. In the end, I think two of the three Gibbs cars will make the Chase; however, I have reservations on whether or not they will be serious title contenders.

As far as a winner outside of JGR, I don’t think it’s likely… but I see Vickers having the best shot at going to Victory Lane among the other Toyota drivers.

Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor (Fridays/Rick Crawford Driver Diary)

That’s a difficult question to answer. It’s hard to tell how much more work the Camry needs because, to be brutally honest, the teams they had last year were not the best for representing what the car might have been capable of. In other words, that’s a really nice way of saying they had bottom end teams last year, although I admit that some part of it was due to half of them being startup operations. However, I do have to think JGR will get Toyota a Cup win because I just have a hard time believing Stewart and Kyle Busch and Hamlin could go winless this year. Maybe one or two, but most certainly not all three.

Amy Henderson, Assistant Editor (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)

Toyota should win this year – if they can’t, they’re out of their league and out of excuses after partnering with JGR. The drivers should prove secondary in that coup, because the biggest gain for Toyota comes in the form of engine builder Mark Cronquist. Because of that, the Camrys will not lack horsepower to the degree they did in ’07, and that may well be their ticket to victory lane. Getting two of the most talented drivers in the show in Stewart and Kyle Busch can’t hurt, either.

Matt Taliaferro, Assistant Editor (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)

I’m of the opinion that JGR’s arrival may negatively impact the other Toyota teams. Yes, there is a sharing of information that theoretically goes on between the Toyota organizations, but if you think Toyota isn’t ready to pour all their efforts into a proven and able title-contending team, think again.

And, yes – Stewart, Kyle Busch and Hamlin (in that order) are ready and able to contend for titles regardless of make, although contending and winning are two different things.

Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer (Mondays/Thinkin’ Out Loud)

It doesn’t matter how good the jockey is – you can’t win the Kentucky Derby on a mule. My guess is that even the Joe Gibbs teams will struggle with their Camrys, and the rest of the Toyota teams will continue their fruitless exercises in futility. It’s also my guess that because of those problems, Stewart’s contract negotiations for 2009 will be front-page media fodder… despite Mr. Stewart’s claims he won’t let those negotiations interfere with the upcoming season. When it’s all said and done, my guess is that Stewart will end up back in a Chevy – perhaps even at Hendrick Motorsports.

Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer (Thursdays/Voices From The Heartland)

Toyota will, as history has shown, become a dominant force in the Cup Series, just as they have in the Trucks and in the real world against the “Big Three.” This is one automaker that does not do anything half “fast” – when Toyota is involved, it is full speed ahead, and the deal with JGR is the latest move as they put their car into another gear. Yes, as this partnership unfolds, the other Toyota teams will benefit and win as their master plan dictates they will. Things will accelerate so quickly, in fact, I believe JGR can and will compete for the championship this year.

Mike Neff, Senior Writer (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)

Toyota made a major step forward by inking Joe Gibbs, but the rest of their teams simply aren’t of the caliber to compete consistently with the other teams on the circuit. Someone might luck into victory lane, but it will be Gibbs that will garner all or most of the attention – and wins – for the Toyota brand as the year unfolds. That said, since the car is going to be consistent for each race – and there isn’t much adjustability with the CoT – Gibbs will have a good shot at making the Chase. However, they most likely still won’t be a championship contender.

Tommy Thompson, Senior Writer (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5)

Popular writer Tommy Thompson couldn’t look into the crystal ball this year – he was too busy having a ball of his own getting married! Congratulations on your marriage, Tommy, from all the Frontstretch staff… to the fans, Tommy sends his regards and looks forward to returning to the fold next week!

Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch Truck Series Expert (Fridays/Tearing Apart The Trucks)

It’s hard to know just how well the Camrys perform on the track because they definitely had a less than stellar lineup for 2007; and while the deal with JGR is supposed to help all Toyota teams, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them get the majority of the research and money thrown at them. However, with all the resources at their disposal Stewart, Hamlin, and Busch are all capable of making the Chase in their first season in the Camry.

Can anyone besides JGR win in a Toyota this season? Well, the rest of the 2008 lineup for Toyota is reminiscent of last year… which doesn’t inspire much hope. But if anyone has a chance to take Toyota to victory lane outside of JGR, it’ll be Vickers.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer (Tuesdays/Voice Of Vito)

The old adage “A rising tide floats all ships” certainly comes to mind when this topic is brought up, and I believe that it will bear fruit early on. With JGR, Toyota finally has a top-tier team with drivers who are both title contenders and proven race winners. Two-time Cup points champion Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli will be leading the Toyota charge, and their organization is able to apply the bountiful resources and engineering support that TRD has to offer.

That will work well for everyone else, considering the way the Toyota paradigm works in regards to their racing operations. Simply put, there are two books they leave open: the checkbook and the techbook. All teams will be able to share the data and information that JGR teams have to them; and with that in mind, the only question is will the mercurial personalities of Stewart, Busch and Hamlin be as open to that as the parent company is. Time will tell.

Mike Lovecchio, Senior Writer (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot And Who’s Not)

Speaking with a few of the Toyota drivers during Preseason Thunder testing in Daytona, they seemed to believe that their program has improved more so because of the manufacturer’s increased effort – not because of JGR. But even still, I expect each of the JGR drivers to win at least once, and at least two of them make the season-ending Chase. How the other Toyota programs do is anybody’s guess; but with the improvement I saw, I do see one other driver sneaking up and winning a race. Expect that driver to be either Blaney or Vickers.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch NASCAR Rookie Expert (Mondays/Rookie Report)

I think JGR can compete for a win, with Bill Davis Racing a distant second in that category. The answer to the Toyota dilemma really has less to do with the manufacturer and everything to do with the team. Gibbs has a long history of winning – even in years after switching car makes – and 2008 will be no different. In the meantime, BDR always has the capability of sneaking in an upset win, and as the only Toyota team with a guaranteed starting spot this season, they fought through the first year with the Camry better than anyone else.

Expectations for Michael Waltrip and Red Bull Racing will be much different. While I believe they will benefit from JGR’s involvement, realistically, they are only second-year teams and need to work on consistently making and finishing races before winning is even a consideration.

Nikki Krone, Senior Writer (Fridays/David Starr Driver Diary)

I think bringing JGR into the Toyota family is great for them, but I don’t know how much it helps the other teams. I think it all depends on how much they really share with the other teams. You would think Toyota would encourage a good relationship between all of them, but in the end, organizations have to look out for themselves.

However, with drivers like Stewart, Hamlin and Kyle Busch, I think JGR could probably share their information with the others in this case and still not have to worry about being beat out most of the time. As much as I respect guys like Waltrip, David Reutimann, Vickers, etc., they really haven’t shown that they can touch the Gibbs guys yet, so unless they show dramatic improvement, I think it will very hard for another Toyota team to get into Victory Lane. But heck, that may have more to do with another year of Hendrick’s dominance than anything else.

S.D. Grady, Newsletter Contributor & Fan Columnist (Tuesdays/Fan’s View)

Some of the smaller Toyota teams that have suffered so far will benefit from the technical expertise based out of JGR. How much? Not enough to make them competitive for the Cup. More of them will break the top 25… that’s about it, though.

But will Gibbs compete for the Cup? Absolutely. Never underestimate the talent of Stewart. Hamlin and Busch might stumble… but Smoke will always blow us away.

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