NASCAR & Auto Racing

Gibbs becomes top Toyota team with manufacturer change

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – Joe Gibbs Racing will switch to Toyotas in 2008, ending a 16-year relationship with General Motors that produced three NASCAR championships.

JGR had been working on a deal with the Japanese automaker all summer and announced the change Wednesday at a news conference. The team also said it was working on contract extensions for two-time series champion Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin.

The manufacturer change will make Gibbs’ three-car operation the premier Toyota team. With GM, Gibbs had to fight with elite Hendrick Motorsports for top billing and also had to compete with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Richard Childress Racing.

“We’re going to have more of a leadership role (at Toyota), that’s probably the key thing,” team president J.D. Gibbs said.

“GM has four really strong teams, and it’s probably a little more difficult, figuring out who has the leadership role.”

The competition won’t be nearly as tough at Toyota, which has struggled mightily in its first season of Nextel Cup racing.

The automaker entered NASCAR’s top series amid much fanfare, but was embarrassed by Michael Waltrip’s cheating scandal at the season-opening Daytona 500 and horrendous on-track performances.

Heading into this weekend’s race at Richmond International Raceway, the seven Toyota drivers have totaled just seven top-10 finishes. JGR’s three drivers have combined for 32.

Toyotas teams have also struggled to make races – its drivers have failed to make the field 70 times in 178 attempts, and not one Camry is ranked in the top 35 in owner’s points.

But Gibbs is expected to change that behind Stewart, Hamlin, and, next year, Kyle Busch. The move also gives Toyota another car from Hall of Fame Racing, which has an alliance with JGR and is expected to field a Camry next season for J.J. Yeley.

“The only way you constantly stay ahead of the game is to put yourself in position to be leaders, not followers,” Stewart said.

“So I’m excited about it. It’s a good opportunity for us to take a leadership stand.”

Stewart and Hamlin are currently in the hunt for the Nextel Cup title, and will finish the season in Chevrolets. Busch, who won’t join JGR until next season, will finish his season in a Hendrick Chevrolet and is also running for the championship.

Although the teams will technically be in transition for the final 11 races of the season, GM said it will continue to support its drivers during their title bids. That could upset other GM teams, particularly DEI and RCR, which will also have drivers competing for the championship and might be wary of JGR and Busch taking trade secrets to Toyota.

“While we understand the business nature of racing, we are disappointed in J.D.’s decision,” said Brent Dewar, vice president of General Motors North America. “With our long-standing relationship and record of winning with them, we hoped they would remain with Chevrolet.

“We will continue to support our JGR drivers in this year’s Chase for the championship. We wish JGR well as they go forward, and Chevrolet will compete against them on the track next year to defend its title as the winningest name in racing.”

In 16 years of Cup competition, JGR has 58 wins, 41 poles and 264 top-five finishes in 937 starts. Gibbs won championships in 2000 with Bobby Labonte and 2002 with Stewart – both drove Pontiacs for GM at the time – and with Stewart in a Chevrolet in 2005.

Gibbs has fielded Chevrolets since 2003.

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