“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, Busch bested fellow Toyota teammate Tony Stewart by nearly .20 seconds… and four of the top-five fastest afternoon times were by Stewart or Busch. The next day’s AM session had four of the top-six cars as Toyotas.
Last year, Toyota couldn’t get a whiff of anything besides the wall or the lift gate on the trailer; 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 MWR failed to qualify for a combined 38 events amongst three teams, while TRB 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 Hamlin, one of the most capable young drivers the sport has seen come along in quite some time, and Stewart, the driver who is arguably the AJ Foyt of this generation. New to the JGR fold for 2008 is Busch, the mercurial young wheelman who even those by who he’s reviled will admit that there is no one out there with more raw talent.
JGR 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 30 horsepower 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 JGR. 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 JGR and Toyota working in concert, what you also have now are the second-tier teams of BDR, TRB and MWR 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 CoT 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 Stewart, Busch and 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.