NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: The Day The Biscuit Wheels Fell Off Toyota’s Gravy Train

Over the years, Japanese auto manufacturers have built a reputation of building vehicles that are as reliable as the Pet Rock. The rationale behind purchasing a car from the Asian auto giant was its above-average fuel efficiency, and that the machines were as mechanically trustworthy as a St. Bernard with a small barrel of elixir strapped to its neck. But while Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyotas have shown irrefutable speed early on this season, one similarity they have not echoed is the corporate nameplate’s distinguished record for reliability and quality control.

Yes, the same company that brought you the Lexus luxury brand was also privy to Kyle Busch‘s intermittent steering and Denny Hamlin‘s semi-active fuel delivery system last weekend. For during Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol, everything that possibly could go wrong did go wrong with a Toyota.

Busch encountered yet more misfortune while leading a Cup race for the second time in three weeks. Coming off turn 2, the steering in his Camry failed to respond. Although he wanted to straighten the wheel, it stayed turned to the left, effectively committing automotive hari kari. The failure was not much different than in 2002 when, while on the parade lap for the fall Talladega race, Mark Martin was busy swerving his car back and forth to warm the tires. As he cut the wheel left, the steering locked, sending him and polesitter Jimmie Johnson into the infield grass.

Oh, well; while Busch was frustrated, at least something like that would never happen to another Toyota – especially one running back in the pack and out of contention for a win.

No, those just burst into flames.

Witness Mike Skinner, one of the car builder’s top guns in the Craftsman Truck Series – as well as the stopgap solution to the problem-plagued No. 84 Red Bull team – who spontaneously combusted on the frontstretch during the race. Following minor contact in a chain reaction spawned by Busch’s spin, Skinner managed to knock an oil line loose on his Camry. Car ablaze, he went in search of a fire engine, which prompted flashbacks to the 1992 Hooters 500 from Atlanta and Richard Petty‘s flame-throwing Pontiac. The King was heard to instruct the safety crew to, “git the ****in’ fire ‘stinguisher!” If Skinner uttered such a command, no one heard it… people just saw his car burnt to a crisp.

As if that wasn’t enough, with 11 laps to go the other Red Bull entry, manned by Brian Vickers, had a tire go down (a Goodyear tire failure? Imagine that!), sending his car into the outside retaining wall and squaring off the starboard side of his No. 83 machine. It wasn’t as if things were rosy for him to begin with, as Vickers’s brakes came and went throughout the race, an issue that has plagued the No. 83 in consecutive weeks (and for most of 2007, I might add). Being able to stop, or at least slow down, prior to plowing into something is favorable.

Lesson for Toyota: Anti-Lock Brakes are good. Anti-Brake Brakes are bad.

Of course, that chain of events set the stage for the climactic Bristol finish between teammates Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin – seemingly the only two Toyotas left standing. On the restart, Hamlin managed to get by Stewart coming out of turn 4 with five laps to go after the No. 20 had trouble getting off the corner. Moments later, Kevin Harvick got into the side of Stewart as the two exited turn 1, sending Big Orange backwards into the wall and shaving a few cubic feet off the Camry’s trunk capacity. Stewart, however, was able to drive away to the prompt attention of the Home Depot crew.

Toyota does make safe vehicles, after all.

And almost lost in this fiasco was Dale Jarrett, who was making his final start driving what has become the familiar white and brown UPS livery, a ride he has sported since 2001. Jarrett started the race in 37th position, in provisional land, after qualifying was rained out on Friday. But after a flat tire and multiple problems, a land of his own is exactly where the man would stay; as the race wound down, Jarrett’s car could be seen coasting around the bottom of the racetrack, trying to keep from getting run over by the leaders.

That’s hardly a fitting end for a storied career that includes three Daytona 500 victories and a Winston Cup title in 1999. Jarrett’s car was so slow that if those tail lights actually functioned, the left one would have been seen blinking for the last 20 miles.

As this afternoon of Russian Roulette drew to a close, Toyota’s final round in the cylinder was Hamlin’s FedEx Camry. Hamlin may have been able to escape a sophomore slump in 2007, but a junior jinx seems to be alive and well in ’08. As the driver came up to speed for a green/white/checker finish, his Toyota stumbled, then had its headlight stickers sucked off as Jeff Burton‘s blindingly bright orange Impala flew by to secure the victory. Hamlin was apparently felled by a nagging fuel pickup issue, one he and the entire Gibbs organization has suffered from dating back to its introduction last season with the Car of Tomorrow. When the CoT (and Gibbs’s CoTs, in particular) is low on fuel, it has trouble getting enough fuel into the pickup to accelerate; JGR seems to be the one team that continues to be snakebitten by this gremlin.

Here’s the bottom line after all this mess: if the Gibbs cars were being sold to the public, they’d likely be recalled by the factory.

Lest you think that this misfortune was confined to East Tennessee, though, think again. The Formula 1 season got going Down Under, about 12 hours before the Food City 500. In Melbourne, Australia, the Toyota of Germany’s Timo Glock was docked 10 grid places after a transmission change and a qualifying violation on Saturday. Adding injury to insult, he slid off the course during the race and drove over an access road. This road was angled in such a manner as to create a launching ramp for his TF108, sending man and machine into a low-Earth orbit before crashing back onto the track. Thankfully, Glock escaped with only a sprained wrist, but the stage had been set for Sunday’s disappointment.

When all was said and done, this past weekend was an ironic and unfortunate turn of events for Toyota. Its idea behind getting further involved in NASCAR was not only to participate in what has become the most prestigious form of auto racing in North America, but also to help consume another slice of the American auto market share pie. But having all of its cars seemingly cursed and doomed to fail in grand fashion was probably not what it had in mind after getting off to such an epic start in 2008, particularly in light of last year’s unmitigated disasters. Fortunately for the Toyota teams, and more so for JGR, the circuit now has a week off. Toyota has time to regroup and evaluate where it sources parts, determining how it might better configure such trivial items as brakes, oil systems and fuel delivery items. After all, Martinsville is next up on the schedule.

And what could possibly go wrong there?

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