Things just got interesting. Everybody colored inside the lines at Wednesday’s announcement that Joe Gibbs Racing will switch to Toyotas next year. It was all nice and polite, which is curious since Tony Stewart was there.
Make no mistake, however, this was the true beginning of the manufacturer’s foray into NASCAR’s top series. Toyota participated in Nextel Cup in 2007. In 2008, it starts competing.
There’s no kind way to say this, but if the teams using Toyotas this year were building Fords, Chevrolets or Dodges, they’d struggle, too. Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull started from scratch, and Bill Davis Racing had been wandering in a NASCAR purgatory until it actually got to start racing Camrys in 2007.
This year, Toyota executives wore out shoe leather worrying about whether they’d get any cars in the Daytona 500. In 2008, they’ll worry about how to win it.
In 2007, only 60.7 percent of the Toyotas trying to make Cup races have actually done that. In 2008, it will be shocking to see fewer than two Toyota teams in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Sure, it might take some time for the people at Joe Gibbs Racing to switch over all of its cars and learn how to make the Toyota engine power those cars to victory lane.
Then again, it might not.
“If we thought we were going to come out of the box slow next year, we wouldn't have done it,” team president J.D. Gibbs said.
When you’ve accomplished as much as Joe Gibbs Racing has – three Cup championships and 58 victories since 1992 – you don’t accept limitations.
“The only way that you constantly stay ahead of the game is by putting yourselves in positions to be leaders, not followers,” Stewart said. “That's why I signed up with Joe Gibbs Racing in the first place.”
Leadership is a word that kept coming up.
“There are certain things we think we'd like to have a leadership role in,” Gibbs said.
“...With GM, you've got four really strong teams, so I think it is probably a little more difficult to say who has a leadership role there. Which direction are we going to go? I think for us, it is just the right decision and the right time.”
In other words, Gibbs wants his team to be the best. That’s the only reason to be in the racing business. And guess what? Toyota feels the same way.
“Our plan has always been that...we would grow,” Toyota Racing Development president Jim Aust said. “You don't know when that's going to come available to you.”
JGR became available because all four of the top-tier Chevrolet teams had their deals with GM come up for renewals. Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. all want to be the best team in the sport, just like JGR does. The chance to be clearly the lead dog at Toyota was too hard for Gibbs to turn away from.
Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch will drive for JGR next year. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears will drive for Hendrick. Those two teams are going to be rivals, but if they were all driving Chevrolets that rivalry couldn’t be what it will be with the Gibbs gang in Toyotas.
“From inside the car, they all look the same,” Stewart said, dismissing that premise. It’s no big deal to us.” But then, Stewart added the magic words.
“What it boils down to,” Stewart said, “is we want to win races.”
And so does Toyota.