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Gibbs' expected move to Toyota could cost Stewart, Hamlin in Chase

9/1/2007 - NASCAR

FONTANA, Calif. -- The chances of Tony Stewart or Denny Hamlin winning the Nextel Cup this season just got a little tougher.

Joe Gibbs Racing will spend the Chase playoff in the Chevrolet doghouse.

Look at it like this: You don't tell your spouse, "Honey, I've found somebody new, but let's stay together for three more months and pretend everything is OK."

The official announcement of the long-rumored JGR move from Chevrolet to Toyota next season will come Wednesday at JGR headquarters.

It's a glorious moment for Toyota, finally landing the big fish it wanted.

But JGR is headed for an awkward few weeks. No matter what they say publicly, Chevrolet officials aren't going to give team owner Joe Gibbs and team president J.D. Gibbs a big hug and wish them well.

The jilted manufacturer could make it hard for JGR down the stretch this season. That's not good for Stewart and Hamlin, two drivers in the Chase who are hoping to win the championship.

Whatever little secrets the Chevy folks might have for the playoff run, they aren't likely to share them with the team going to the enemy next year. JGR could lose some technical support from Chevy in the 10 playoff races.

That could benefit the Chase Chevy drivers at Hendrick Motorsports (Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch), Richard Childress Racing (Jeff Burton and probably Kevin Harvick) and Dale Earnhardt Inc. (probably Martin Truex Jr.).

Kyle Busch, the man who is moving to JGR next season, doesn't think the other Chevrolet drivers in the Chase will have an advantage.

"All these teams do their own research and development," Busch said. "We all get the same parts from Chevrolet. And you really don't learn anything new this late in the year."

Maybe Busch is right. Maybe it won't matter. Maybe it will. JGR was heavily involved in the development of the new R07 engine Chevrolet teams started using this season.

The new motor has been a big success, but it still has a few kinks to work out. DEI in particular has suffered numerous engine failures, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday that learning the nuances of the new motor was partially to blame.

If Chevrolet officials find a little alteration to the engine in the next few weeks, do they pass that info along to JGR? Does JGR get the latest updates on every part Chevy has to offer?

Chevrolet officials have two ways to look at it. Stewart and Hamlin are legitimate championship contenders. Chevy folks could say, "Let's go all out to help them win the title in their last year with us."

Or they could say, "Forget them. We are not passing along any information that will end up at Toyota next season."

Do they really want to see Stewart or Hamlin celebrating in Victory Lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway, holding the Cup while winking at the Toyota folks in the background?

It's a unique situation for everyone involved, and the three JGR drivers for 2008 have different perspectives on the move.

Busch is all for it, saying he knew it could happen when he was negotiating his new deal. Hamlin doesn't seem thrilled about it, but he trusts Joe Gibbs and J.D. and believes they won't steer the team astray.

Stewart has yet to weigh in with his feelings, but it would surprise almost everyone if the two-time Cup champion were happy about it.

This type of move is a big risk at this point of Stewart's career. He is under contract at JGR though 2009 but has been negotiating an extension. This change could have an impact on those discussions.

For the legion of Stewart fans who worry their hero won't be competitive next year in a Camry, your fears are unfounded.

The days of darkness soon will end for Toyota. Things should change dramatically in 2008 after one miserable season of the manufacturer paying its Nextel Cup dues.

It's a little like the Tampa Bay Devils Rays signing Alex Rodriguez, but better. The Devils Rays still wouldn't win with the game's best player, but Toyota will win next year with Stewart, Hamlin and Busch in Camrys.

Talented people who rank at the top of their profession make the difference -- engineers, fabricators, engine builders, crew chiefs, pit crews and drivers. And JGR has some of the best in the business.

They'll work hand in hand with Toyota Racing Development engineers to get the Camry engines up to speed quickly in 2008.

As for the bodies, it's almost paint-by-the-numbers with the Car of Tomorrow. The differences in the COT models are almost unnoticeable.

But the immediate concern is the end of 2007. JGR will need to rely heavily on its enormous talent pool to overcome its lame-duck status with Chevrolet.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.