You had to wonder with everything that has happened this season, whether Toyota officials would ever get the chance to celebrate in Victory Lane.
That’s why Jason Leffler’s dramatic NASCAR Busch Series win last weekend near Indianapolis was such a welcome respite.
Until his victory at O’Reilly Raceway Park, Toyota’s grand debut in stock car racing had been highlighted by a cheating scandal in Nextel Cup’s biggest race, the inability of many of its Cup teams to qualify for races and several teasingly close good finishes in Busch races.
“The win really justifies the hard work that everyone has put into the Busch program,” said Jim Aust, president and CEO of Toyota Racing Development.
“Even though the numbers are small, as far as the amount of competitors out there for us, the drivers and teams are doing a fantastic job.”
Aust said although there isn’t a lot that can translate to Toyota’s Cup programs from the Busch side, enthusiasm never hurts.
“Once you see one team do it, everybody has the same thought: ‘If they can do it, we can do it.’
“That’s a real benefit that we’ll see as the year unfolds.”
Just past the halfway mark of its first venture into the Cup and Busch series, Toyota has been struggling.
One of its flagship teams in Cup, Michael Waltrip Racing, was punished by NASCAR when team owner Michael Waltrip’s car was caught with a fuel additive at Daytona.
In the ensuing weeks, MWR’s teams struggled to make races, as did cars from the Toyota teams of Bill Davis Racing and Team Red Bull.
Without the benefit of on-track race experience, the Toyota teams found it more difficult to identify and correct problems with their cars.
Most of the success Toyota had come in the Busch Series.
Dave Blaney started the year with a second-place finish in the series opener at Daytona in a Toyota Camry. He followed that with a third at Nashville and another third in the July Daytona race. He also got the manufacturer its first pole, in the season’s second race at California.
The April Nashville race was Toyota’s best until Leffler’s win. Toyotas finished second, third and fourth in that event.
Leffler, who with Blaney drives for Braun Racing, had fast cars but until recently had not been able to put together the finishes to reflect it.
“We had a lot of bad luck early in the season, but we had the speed,” he said.
“Knowing that we had the speed is really what kept everybody going. Lately, we’ve had some good cars and some good race tracks that we’ve run across.
“I’m so proud for everybody and our team worked so hard for this win. We’re a small Busch team, so with Toyota’s help, and support from (our sponsor), we’ve been able to compete with the big boys.”
Even with Ford driver Carl Edwards running away with the Busch title, Toyota has three drivers ranked in the top 10 in points: David Reutimann is second, Leffler third and Blaney seventh. On the Cup side, Toyota’s highest-ranked driver is Blaney in 35th.
Still, Toyota officials would much rather enjoy the added pressure that comes with better performance.
“Once you have one win, the question will be, ‘When is the next one coming?’ It says something about the program and the hard work that everyone puts into it,” Aust said.
“It’s just like anything else that you set out to do – once you’ve accomplished it, you have a greater appreciation for the job. But you also have a greater feeling that you can do it again.”