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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Like it or Not… Toyota’s Here to Stay

After what can most politely be termed as a “learning experience for Toyota” in year one, there was little doubt in the media, in the garage, or amongst the fans that 2008 would be a completely different story. After Joe Gibbs Racing was safely ensconced in the fold, along with the expertise of renowned engine builder Mark Cronquist, the only real question was “when” and not “if” they would win a Sprint Cup race. On Sunday, after 500 tough miles at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kyle “Rowdy” Busch achieved the milestone win for the Japanese manufacturer in his own inimitable fashion; Busch, being a man for whom the term “drive it like you stole it” was invented.

But Toyota was hardly stealing the winning trophy in their 40th start in the Cup Series. The seeds of their milestone victory were sown over several years of hard work, a culmination of their early experiences in both the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide series. Following the automaker’s 2004 introduction to NASCAR’s trucks, it took just 13 races before Travis Kvapil took the checkers in his Tundra at Michigan. Just three short seasons later, the manufacturer had their first truck champion in Todd Bodine, and they accounted for 12 race victories in total. After that, the going got tougher; it took 10 more starts (22) for Toyota to win as they expanded to the Nationwide Series in 2007, with Jason Leffler wheeling the Camry to Victory Lane at O’Reilly Raceway Park. David Reutimann added another in Memphis that October, and Tony Stewart‘s two early season victories in 2008 make it four wins in 39 attempts for the Nationwide Toyotas. Given those incremental differences between series, it seems about right that we hit the number 40 before this manufacturer secured that all-important first Cup triumph.

BOWLES: KYLE BUSCH AND TOYOTA A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN

And if it was going to be anyone, why not Busch? Yes, he’s rubbed a few competitors the wrong way, and sure, there are plenty of fans that hate the confident, cocksure kid from Vegas; but I doubt you’d find many dissenters with regard to his driving ability. The junior Busch has a number of other firsts under his belt already: youngest driver ever to win a Cup race (California, September 2005); first driver to win a CoT race (Bristol, March 2007); the youngest driver to win at Atlanta, beating out then-Wonderboy Jeff Gordon by almost seven months; and now, the first driver to win a points-paying Cup race with Toyota.

But before the traditionalists turn in their Dale Earnhardt Jr. merchandise in disgust, tear down their No. 3 flags, eBay their Bristol season tickets and start watching soccer instead on a Sunday, remember that this is not the first time a foreign manufacturer has won in NASCAR. Yes, you have to go back more than 50 years; but, given the lack of participation from the 1960s through 2004, that drought is not all that surprising. However, in the sport’s early days a number of foreign car companies, including the likes of Aston Martin, Austin-Healey, Citroen, MG, Morgan, Porsche, Renault and Volkswagen turned laps in NASCAR’s elite division. It was the little-known Al Keller, who tragically died in 1961 as a result of injuries sustained in a Champ Car crash at the Arizona State Fairgrounds track, who secured the first victory for one of these foreign manufacturers. Keller piloted his Jaguar to the win on the Linden, N.J. airport runway track in the International 500 on June 13, 1954; it was a day on which the manufacturer had four cars in the top six, the peak of its brief but notable involvement in the sport.

On the heels of similar success for Toyota, some have suggested their participation in an “American” sport is a bad thing. But let’s not forget that this is a company that has produced cars in this country for over 50 years; statistics show their total investment in the U.S. since their arrival is some $15 billion. They employ almost 35,000 people within our borders (more than the likes of Cisco, Texas Instruments or General Mills) and the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) estimates that Toyota is responsible for the creation of some 386,000 jobs. Then, there is the small matter of the estimated $28 billion they spend annually on parts and supplies from vendors in over 30 states. I’m not trying to be a corporate drone for Toyota – far from it, I promise – but to paint the Japanese automaker as this big bad evil empire not fit for NASCAR is neither accurate nor fair.

As a foreigner myself (I’m British) I have to say that I find the staunch anti-Toyota sentiment hard to understand at times, even within the site I work for. For example, Matt McLaughlin’s column Toyota’s Here, And There Goes The Neighborhood last week caused me to nearly write to my esteemed colleague to complain. Now, before you think I’m one of those moaners who only want my point of view to be heard, let me be clear. Yes, Matt’s absolutely entitled to his opinion, especially in this country where free speech is such an important tenet of society; but it doesn’t mean I have to like or agree with his notion that Toyota is essentially bad for the sport. The section that bothered me the most was this:

“Call me a xenophobe, but I cannot stand the idea of a foreign auto manufacturer winning a Cup title; and I know there’s a lot of others like me out there, too, despite the fact that some of them may have a Camry or Tundra parked in their driveway.”

So, Toyota is good enough to drive your kids to school, to pick up your groceries or to go on a road trip to a race; but it’s not good enough to watch – for fun – on a Sunday afternoon? How does that make any sense? To me, it doesn’t.

I understand and respect the argument that some longtime fans lost their jobs because of the influx of foreign manufacturers in the U.S. But doesn’t this also say something about the domestic manufacturers and their inability to keep up with the global marketplace? Isn’t the spirit of competition, hard work, striving to get ahead and bold entrepreneurship exactly what America was built on? To me, one of the greatest things about this country is that anyone with the will, effort and determination (and a little bit of luck) can succeed regardless of their race, color, or creed. Why shouldn’t those same values be applied to the best racing series in the U.S., if not the world? Should a foreign manufacturer like Toyota want to make what amounts to a heavy investment in this sport, why shouldn’t they – and why should NASCAR be exclusively American? It wasn’t in the early days… so why should it be so now?

In the aftermath of Sunday’s success, there’s a new, final question that’s entered the fold for me as well.

Isn’t it time now for the big three – Ford, Dodge and Chevy – to stand up and show Toyota they are not going to roll over and die?