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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Toyota Ruling the Roost of NASCAR in Both Competition and Compelling Personalities

The New NASCAR: Some love it, others revile it, but everybody’s got an opinion. The Car of Tomorrow has its share of detractors and supporters, as does the television coverage and what has become the “over-commercialization” of the sport in recent years (Which always strikes me as funny – here’s a sport that is based almost entirely on corporate America’s advertising and sponsorship dollars, and it’s accused of being over commercialized). Anyways, now that car-brand identity has all but vanished, we are essentially watching 43 billboards race against the backdrop of a four-hour-long infomercial each week.

So, if you’re in the boat of those that think the sport’s been tilting in the wrong direction as of late, the last bastion of hope for NASCAR appears to be the thing that has driven it for so many years: the personalities within the sport itself.

Say what you will about Brian France’s brief tenure at the tiller of the USS LicenseToPrintMoney, but at least he had the good sense to recognize (or be beat into submission) that the only thing able to sustain NASCAR during this period of declining attendance, sagging ratings and an economic climate not conducive to travel or disposable income are the drivers and crew chiefs who race the now near indistinguishable 43 cars that line up each Sunday. These people that fans back with a blind loyalty not seen outside of a Hezbollah fundraiser along the Gaza strip are the key attribute to a sport that has had more than its fair share of criticism in recent years – be it capricious rules enforcement, track homogenization, spontaneous yellow flags or issues with diversity.

That being said, it seems as if the most interesting drivers out there are those who drive for the newest member to the party, a member that was met with quite a bit of skepticism in its own right: Toyota. These cars may not have the past connections longtime fans are looking for; but what they lack in history, they make up for in hiring wheelmen happy to break the cookie-cutter mold.

Chief among those competitors is current Sprint Cup points leader Kyle Busch. Right now, his talent has triumphed over all else; love him or hate him, the kid can flat-out drive. Don’t think so? He was always fast in the No. 5 car at Hendrick Motorsports, winning four races during his tenure with the team. After leaving, he’s won five races this season to date with JGR – leading all drivers in Sprint Cup – and for all intents and purposes, should probably have won eight or nine. For Busch to have done this well before the halfway point of the season in a new ride is nothing short of remarkable.

But it’s Busch’s personality that proves an equal match for his powerful performance. He is brash, outspoken, and – unlike Jeff Gordons wooden and laconic window-front mannequin responses to fans booing him in the late 1990s – he gives it right back to his detractors, saluting them with faux tear wiping and heart holding, taking bows and waving back with a smile on his face.

In the meantime, Busch’s teammate Tony Stewart has become the surly, crotchety next-door neighbor of sorts. Short with the media when things go awry and never one to mince words when wronged, Stewart says what 90% of the drivers wish they had the courage to say when a microphone is jammed in their face seconds upon exiting what was once a $250,000 racing machine, but is now little more than a candidate to become a container for some Campbell’s Thick & Chunky. Stewart may have put a little meat on those bones over the past year and a half, but the real weight he carries is with his voice as much as his car.

Moving from pressing the issue to peddling products, the twin Red Bull cars of Brian Vickers and AJ Allmendinger have the might of the largest marketing program on the planet pushing their team each week. In the past, they weren’t the fastest cars on the track, but they did project the image of being the hippest. And now that they are starting to hit their stride and show signs of being contenders, their allure is that much more appealing week in, week out.

Staying in the same vein with Red Bull, enter their newest entry to American stock car racing: Scott Speed. The winner of Red Bull’s contest to see which driver from the United States got the opportunity to fail on a grand scale in front of all of Europe in Formula 1, Speed was spared by Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz and given a second chance at life in cars with fenders and tonneau covers. Currently splitting time with other drivers in the Bill Davis Racing No. 22 Toyota Tundra, Speed scored his first NASCAR victory less than a month ago in Dover, Del. Mugging for the camera as soon as he removed his helmet, Speed displayed a side to fans that is as different today as Tim Richmond was in 1986 – and in the process, revealed an eccentricity of painting toenails, as far from the norm in this Southern-bred sport as you can possibly get. While Speed has not made his Cup debut, it is only a matter of time before he gets the call to move up and join another former F1 driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, in the top echelons of stock car success.

And over in that Truck Series, there’s no competition as far as top manufacturer: Toyota reigns supreme. While the Big Three have either scaled back or largely abandoned factory support of their Truck teams, Toyota continues to move forward unabated, harboring the organizations that are consistently the fastest on the track along with drivers that have become the face of a series that, while considered a stepping stone, is more like NASCAR’s version of the Senior Tour.

But within that success lies the uniqueness of drivers different from your run-of-the-mill wheelman. Toyota’s got Johnny Benson Jr., who’s the series’ Most Popular Driver – and for good reason. The soft-spoken native of Grand Rapids, Mich., is consistently among the frontrunners each week, having scored 10 wins in the last three seasons and doing so in a manner that runs contrary to the rough and tumble, “anything goes” persona that the Truck Series implies.

Along with Benson is teammate Mike Skinner, the best driver to never have won a Cup race (save for an exhibition event in Japan in 1997) who narrowly missed winning the Truck Series title last year. Skinner is good-natured, always provides a great sound bite and is seemingly in the middle of the action – regardless of where it occurs on the track. And when Skinner does win, one can always count on a colorful greeting from wife Angie in victory lane.

Finally, there is Toyota’s Onion: Todd Bodine. The 2006 Truck Series champion has notched 13 wins since becoming a full-time driver in 2005, and has done well to carry on the Bodine name in NASCAR since the retirement of brothers Geoff and Brett.

KEITH: LOGANO EXACTLY WHERE HE NEEDS TO BE

Not to be forgotten amidst all this is the sport’s Triple-A league, the Nationwide Series, which is, in essence, struggling to find its identity. Since many Cup drivers pull double duty there, the list of Toyota triumphs becomes a bit redundant. However, there is one driver in particular who bears mention – and that is 18-year old Joey Logano. Given the nickname “Sliced Bread,” Logano has made four Nationwide Series starts to date, and has wasted no time in verifying his moniker – he’s got two poles and one race win already to his credit. In fact, Logano’s career has gotten off to such a strong start in NASCAR that many have tabbed him to replace Stewart in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing machine should he move on to pursue other opportunities. Whatever happens next for the youngster, it’s clear there has been perhaps no more hoopla and hype surrounding a driver in NASCAR since Gordon exited Bill Davis’s Fords to drive Rick Hendrick’s Chevrolets over 15 years ago.

It can be argued that Toyota has dominated all three series thus far this season. Busch has the most wins and is leading the Sprint Cup points standings while Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Busch and Logano have combined to win 12 of 16 races so far this year on the Nationwide side. In the Truck Series, Toyotas won the first three races of the season, and if not for a gust of wind or a balky transmission, Benson would have claimed three wins in a row and maintained the points lead he had leaving Michigan. But although the vehicles are fast, the one common denominator that links them all together are the uniqueness of the guys behind the wheel. Not only have they succeeded on the track, but have become the face of their respective divisions off the track as well. Love it or hate it, it’s a strong impression filled with strong personalities that shows no signs of tailing off anytime soon.

Or so they hope.