Forget the stopwatch. You won’t need to be that precise to measure the progress in Toyota’s second season of competition at NASCAR’s top level.
A calendar will do just fine.
Sprint Cup racing’s newest participating manufacturer, along with everyone who follows the sport, will count the days in 2008 until Toyota’s biggest move so far, the addition of powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing to the Camry lineup, pays off in two ways.
First, how soon will the Gibbs operation and its three drivers – all proven winners – get back to the championship-contending level it was with Pontiac and Chevrolet?
And then, how fast can improvements from the first-tier talent and expertise of the Gibbs operation spread to help the teams that struggled through Toyota’s inaugural season?
From Toyota’s perspective, the intent to make the latter happen seems to be in place.
"One of the philosophies that we have tried to embrace dating back to the start of our NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series program in 2004 is to get all the teams to work together as best as possible," said Jim Aust, vice president of motorsports for Toyota’s American operations.
“You’re much stronger by sharing information and working as one, as opposed to working as individual organizations.
“It’s not easy because everyone is a competitor. (But) the Gibbs organization has come on board with the outlook that they are willing to share information and work with the other teams. As we see that unfold throughout the year, I think we’ll see our entire group become stronger.”
The addition of Gibbs, with returning drivers Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin and new arrival Kyle Busch, cannot be overstated for Toyota.
Having Stewart, a two-time champion with 32 victories in nine Cup seasons, and Hamlin and Busch, two of NASCAR’s most promising young drivers, in Toyotas means the automaker has legitimate hopes of winning races instead of worrying how many of its teams will even make the show. Only 63.2 percent of the Toyotas that tried to make races did so in 2007, and not once all season did every Camry that entered make the show.
Hall of Fame Racing is also switching to Toyota, with J.J. Yeley driving its No. 96 cars. Yeley, Stewart, Hamlin, Busch and Dave Blaney, who returns in the No. 22 Toyotas fielded by Bill Davis Racing, are all assured starting spots for the first five races, which already puts Toyota well ahead of where it was a year ago.
Toyota started its Cup program with two new teams – Michael Waltrip Racing’s three and two fielded by Team Red Bull – along with two Bill Davis-owned teams. Only Dale Jarrett, in one of Waltrip’s cars, had that assurance in 2007 – by virtue of Jarrett’s status as a past champion.
Blaney made 33 of 36 races in 2007, but only three others – David Reutimann (26), Jarrett (24) and Brian Vickers (23) qualified for more than half the races. Blaney’s third-place finish at Talladega in October was Toyota’s high-water mark, with a fifth-place finish for Vickers in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte the only other top five for the manufacturer all year.
By comparison, Stewart, Hamlin and Yeley had 24 top-five finishes last year.
“I would probably give our first season a ‘B-minus,’ ” Aust said. “We expected to run in the top 15 by midseason, and we moved in on that at the end of the season. Overall, the consistency picked up, but we still have plenty of work to do in order to compete with the Hendrick, Childress and Roush teams.”
If Toyota does that in 2008, it almost certainly will be the Gibbs team carrying the banner. And in announcing the switch in September, team president J.D. Gibbs certainly wasn’t asking for any sort of grace period for the transition.
“We didn’t look at it like that,” Gibbs said. “If we thought we were going to come out of the box slow, we wouldn’t have done it. We should come out of the box just as strong.
“If not, I think we’ll all be really disappointed.”
Busch was the odd-man-out when Hendrick Motorsports decided to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and to many it remains an open question whether Gibbs or Rick Hendrick got the best end of that deal. Busch will turn 23 in May, and already has four wins and 51 top-five finishes in 114 career starts. He’s made the Chase for the Nextel Cup in each of the past two years and was fifth in last year’s final standings.
He joins Stewart, a two-time champion with 32 career victories entering his 10th season in Cup, and Hamlin, who at 27 enters his third full year with three wins and Chase appearances in each of the first two years.
Waltrip’s year as a driver and owner in many ways became a shorthand for Toyota’s inaugural season struggles. He made the Daytona 500 despite having his primary car confiscated by NASCAR in a rules scandal that jarred his operation to the core, then missed 16 of the next 19 races.
Jarrett had eight did-not-finishes in his 24 starts and Reutimann had nine in his 26, and both wound up with average finishes of worse than 30th.
But Waltrip’s team survived, which for a while seemed like an overly lofty goal. “We built a solid foundation,” said Waltrip, who announced in October he had sold half of his ownership stake to Robert Kauffman, providing a needed infusion of cash.
“I’m very happy with how we did off the track, but I’m disappointed with how we did on the track.
“I know we’ll get better next year because I know Toyota has been learning and growing along with us. I’m very optimistic about 2008 – we know where we are and we know where we’ve been.”
Waltrip is back to drive the No. 55 Toyotas. Jarrett will start the year in the No. 44, but plans to run only the Budweiser Shootout then the first five points races and the Nextel All-Star Challenge before retiring.
Reutimann will start the year in the No. 00 Camry, then will change the numbers on his cars to 44 and pick up the UPS sponsorship after Jarrett is finished.
Michael McDowell and Josh Wise are in line to take over the No. 00 cars for Waltrip’s third team.
Blaney had four of Toyota’s 11 top-10 finishes in 2007 and missed only the first Talladega race and both events at Dover. He’ll have a rookie teammate in Jacques Villeneuve for 2008.
Villeneuve won the Formula One world championship in 1997 and was the IndyCar champion two years prior to that. He has won races all over the world, but none anywhere since that F1 title season.
AJ Allmendinger, Vickers’ teammate at Team Red Bull, was winning in the ChampCar World Series when he left to move to NASCAR in 2006 and Allmendinger has found the transition to stock cars mighty challenging – he made only 17 races in his 36 tries as a rookie.
If the new teams find success across the board for Toyota in 2008, Vickers could well become the personification of that improvement. Although he made only 23 races in 2007, his five top-10 finishes topped the Toyota fleet.
Vickers is still just 24 years old, too, which means that like Busch and Hamlin he still has time to grow into success with Toyota, which already is thinking big for 2008.
“I think our teams are setting themselves up for success,” Aust said. “I don’t think there is any question that we will get some wins this year and, hopefully, the first will come at Daytona.
“When we looked at our program we thought that by year three we would be in contention for a championship – and that was before the addition of Joe Gibbs Racing. That’s going to be moved ahead by a year now.”