NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: With Help From Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Has Arrived

Betting the farm on which driver will win the Daytona 500 is never advisable, as there are just way too many possibilities given the level of NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. However, in the past, wagering on which manufacturer would win provided much better odds. In fact, you normally would pretty much have a 50/50 chance of being correct if you simply answered Ford or Chevy. With the exception of a stunning Dodge win in 2002 by Ward Burton, those two makes have won every Daytona 500 since 1989. However, with the emergence of Toyota as a genuine threat, odds of any one manufacturer going to Victory Lane have decreased dramatically.

Quite simply, Toyota has arrived!

Last February’s debut of the Camry in the Great American Race became an embarrassment to the manufacturer, and for the most part, to all the Toyota teams. They saw their best qualifying effort turned in by Michael Waltrip Racing driver David Reutimann with only the 15th-fastest overall speed; and then there was the Michael Waltrip intake manifold “doping” scandal that stole the headlines leading up to the 500, creating a public relations nightmare for the Japanese car builder. What Toyota teams did make the race did not fare much better during it; although MWR driver Dale Jarrett, in the race by way of a past champion’s provisional, did manage to hang with the draft and record a 22nd-place finish. The other three Toyota entrants, Waltrip, Dave Blaney and Reutimann finished, 28th, 34th and 40th, respectfully, leaving Jarrett as the only Toyota entry to finish on the lead lap.

Well, what a difference a year makes! Last Sunday’s qualifying efforts saw six of the fastest 16 attempts for this year’s race turned in by the revamped Toyotas. And for a genuine “from goat to hero” story, Waltrip, last year’s disgraced car owner, ran a blistering lap in his No. 55 NAPA Toyota to assure himself of an outside pole for the 50th running of the Daytona 500. To accentuate the point that the Toyotas are not just good in qualifying trim, their 2008 debut in the Bud Shootout showed that they have the horses to run for the win. Led by Tony Stewart‘s Joe Gibbs Racing/Home Depot No. 20 Toyota’s second-place finish, the manufacturer had strong performances turned in by a number of its teams. Blaney, driver of the No. 22 Bill Davis Racing/CAT Dealers Toyota, who challenged for the lead on several occasions, and together Blaney and Stewart showed that there is more muscle under the hood of the Camrys this year, and that they intend to be in the mix come race day. In an impressive display of strength, none of the six Toyota entries finished worse than 16th in the 23-car field.

That the Japanese automaker would be competitive in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was never really in doubt considering their deep pockets and unlimited engineering resources. However, after last season’s inauspicious introduction into the series, it would be understandable if some doubted that they would look like frontrunners so soon. Credit needs to be given to the manufacturer for making necessary moves to improve their team’s performances.

But chief among positive moves that Toyota made in the midst of the poor showing of 2007 was signing JGR into their stable for 2008. JGR came over with an incredibly talented group of drivers in two-time champion Stewart and “young guns” Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. All three drivers will be guaranteed starts for the first five races of the season, as their teams are safely within the Top 35 in owner points; of course, they are all safe bets to continue to be as the 2008 season grinds on, giving Toyota the stability it lacked last year. In 2007, the only Toyota team with the Top-35 advantage was the BDR CAT car of Blaney’s. Another byproduct of the JGR switch was that the Hall of Fame No. 96, driven this year by JJ Yeley, followed suit, and will be campaigning Camrys with Top-35 protection, as well.

PUGLIESE: TONY STEWART CENTER OF CONTROVERSY AGAIN

The alliance with JGR has proven to be just what Toyota needed to expedite its Cup racing program. With the exception of BDR, TRD’s eggs were all in the baskets of two startup operations, Red Bull Racing and MWR. What they got with JGR was a well-experienced, top-notch Sprint Cup organization – something they were sorely missing.

As I had predicted leading-up to the official announcement that JGR would be leaving Chevrolet for Toyota last September in an article titled Toyota: Banking On Some Old-Fashioned American Ingenuity, From Joe Gibbs, Toyota has benefited tremendously from their new relationship with Gibbs. My opinion at the time was based greatly on the engine building expertise of JGR’s head engine builder Mark Cronquist; Cronquist has been building strong engines for years, and contributed greatly to the development of Chevrolet’s present power plant, the R07. Gibbs’ switch from Chevrolet to Toyota prompted Dale Earnhardt Inc.’s engine guru, Richie Gilmore, to lament, “We just developed a new engine, and all that technology is gone to another competitor.”

But Cronquist does not take credit for the improvement in Toyota power. He claims, “They (Toyota) were working on that plate engine as soon as the rules started coming out. The rest of us all were worrying about Chase races and worrying about this and worrying about that. They definitely got to work on it more than anybody else did.”

TRD admits that it will be depending on Cronquist’s expertise to a greater extent to find more horsepower in their engines when the circuit moves on to tracks intermediate in length. In preseason testing at two such tracks, Las Vegas and California, Busch posted the top speed for a session at Las Vegas, and Hamlin did likewise at California with Gibbs Toyota-powered racecars. Results indicate that Cronquist already has made significant gains with the new engine package; and based on past history, look for him to continue to do so.

Meanwhile, Waltrip is also trumpeting the advantages of having JGR on board with Toyota. Said Waltrip, “We’ve already derived benefits from the addition of JGR. They know how much power they had here (at Daytona) last year when they raced Chevrolets. They know what kind of aero they had… and they want (their cars) to be the same or better.”

Waltrip’s comments are symbolic of an openness by JGR to share information with other Toyota teams. Shortly after the official switch in December, Team President JD Gibbs visited the race shops of BDR and MWR and pledged his organization would be cooperate fully with them. Gibbs expressed the belief that the stronger all the Toyota programs became, the better JGR would become; and by all reports, JGR is abiding by that commitment.

Toyota, the largest seller of automobiles in the world, probably could have naturally become, in time, truly competitive against the likes of the three U.S.-owned manufacturers, Chevy, Ford and Dodge. But how long that would have taken without the contributions from JGR the last several months is difficult to estimate; most likely, they’ve accelerated their competition level by several years.

Of course, there’s still a long way to go before this car truly rises to the top. Betting on a Toyota Camry to win this year’s Daytona 500 is by no means a safe bet, but betting on them not to leave embarrassed this year is.

And, that’s my view from Turn 5.

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