Toyota's foray into Cup racing a work in progress
It's been a rough debut for Toyota in Nextel Cup racing. Just ask Michael Waltrip. But is the manufacturer ready to throw in the towel? Not a chance, writes Angelique S. Chengelis.
Eight races into the Nextel Cup season, Toyota has endured its share of struggles in its first foray into stock car racing's upper echelon.
Discouraged? Not at all.
But the inconsistency of team performances has been a bit of a drag for the manufacturer.
"It feels like it's been many seasons already," said Lee White, Toyota's senior vice president of Toyota Racing Development, with a slight chuckle. "We're, what, three months away from going back to racetracks, and I still maintain that's when, hopefully, we'll start seeing a bit more consistent performance from everyone."
Toyota is in the midst of a feel-its-way process. So much had been written and discussed before the season about how much money the Japanese manufacturer was going to throw at this Cup project that no one thought to wonder whether money would equal preparation.
It takes time to find momentum and consistency. Toyota found that out when it entered open-wheel racing in the CART series and, later, in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series.
Quite simply, it takes time.
"We're still kind of feeling our way from an engineering support standpoint of how to really patch in the capabilities that we have to add to the team's capabilities and so on, so it's very much a learning process still under way," White said.
Clearly, no one has thrown in the towel, and no one is considering such drastic measures.
There have been glimmers of success for Toyota this season, but they have been fleeting, to say the least. The high point was having five cars in the field in the Car of Tomorrow race at Martinsville. Brian Vickers has been responsible for Toyota's best finishes, with a 10th at California Speedway and finishes of 14th and 15th at Texas and Bristol, respectively.
The biggest headline getter has been Michael Waltrip's inability to qualify his Toyota. He made the Daytona 500 field but has been shut out since. Waltrip is owner of the three-car team that is considered by many to be the Toyota "flagship."
Waltrip said this past weekend at Phoenix that he is looking at all options to try to fix problems within his team, including the possibility -- slim, though it might be -- of stepping aside from his driver duties to focus solely on ownership.
"I have not ever discussed that with Michael, and frankly, I'm not sure that's my job to discuss," White said. "That's a decision Michael and his team management team would make, I think. I'm sure that Michael is thinking in terms of what's best for his company. He's done a rather remarkable job of assembling something in a very short period of time that is daunting, to say the least.
"I know that Michael tells everyone he can flip a switch. He demonstrates back here behind his ear, he can switch that and he's a driver, he can switch over here and he's an owner, and he switches here he's an engineer and then a television personality. He has done a remarkable job of covering a lot of bases. If that is something Michael deems, and his management group decides it's in the best interest of Waltrip Racing, then by all means, we support his decision. But it isn't something that Toyota is advocating or pushing for. We're continuing to focus on engine and horsepower and car."
With that focus in mind, Toyota engineers took the car Dale Jarrett drove at California and rebuilt it from scratch to see where it could be improved. The car has gone through wind-tunnel testing and rig testing and on-track testing at Nashville.
All the data will be shared with all Toyota teams.
"We're not discouraged with what we've seen so far, and we're not exactly overjoyed with anything," White said. "It hasn't blown anyone away with massive amount of downforce, but it has demonstrated a very stable aerodynamic platform in what we call the center of pressure. It doesn't migrate, which is something that teams suffer from when that happens. Hopefully, it will be a more consistent car on the racetrack, but right now consistency isn't what we're looking for. We need blazing speed to get people in races."
White said Toyota's next project likely will involve taking a short-track Car of Tomorrow car, probably from Bill Davis Racing, and doing the same thing -- rebuilding it from scratch to see whether Toyota engineers can do anything to improve performance.
"To see if we can help," White said. "Bristol [and] Martinsville were pleasant surprises, having five of seven in on speed [at the latter], so it's a little bit of a setback emotionally. I wouldn't be truthful if I didn't tell you we were disappointed to get two guys in on speed [last weekend at Phoenix]."
Angelique S. Chengelis is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage.
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