Toyota teams looked solid in open round of testing
Not that anyone expected the cars to catch fire, but Toyota drivers and teams were excited about their new car's performance at Daytona testing, writes David Newton.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Lee White flashed a big smile as he walked through the Nextel Cup garage on another sun-splashed day at Daytona International Speedway.
"We haven't run one into the fence and we haven't seen smoke come out of any wires yet, so we're OK," the senior vice president for Toyota Racing Development said.
White wasn't making light of what the three new Toyota Cup organizations accomplished during three-and-a- half days of preseason testing at the 2.5-mile track.
He was just being realistic, understanding these tests aren't more significant than any others the Japanese-based manufacturer has undertaken as it prepares for its debut in NASCAR's premier series in next month's Daytona 500.
"It doesn't mean anything," White said. "It's testing. You don't know what other people are working on or what they are trying to do. Until they roll out in three weeks, it's all irrelevant."
But what White saw at Daytona had to be encouraging. The difference in speed between the Toyota Camry and the other manufacturers -- Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge -- was minimal.
Dave Blaney of Bill Davis Racing was fast out of the box, posting the third-fastest lap in Monday's opening session. Dale Jarrett of Michael Waltrip Racing had the second-fastest lap on Wednesday afternoon.
Brian Vickers overcame a slow start to move into the middle of the pack for Team Red Bull, but his numbers weren't far enough off the leaders to panic.
"As a whole, everyone in the Toyota camp has to be pretty pleased with what we've seen," Jarrett said. "The engines have been very good and to be quite honest that was a concern of mine, obviously, coming from where I came from."
Jarrett left Robert Yates Racing, whose engine power was among the elite in NASCAR. Knowing how much RYR and other organizations spent on developing restrictor-plate engines for Daytona he wondered how far behind Toyota might be.
"But I was very pleased the first time that I went on the track with what I saw in regards to the engine, so we've been very good," he said.
The past four days was as much about learning to work together as it was about gaining speed for the Toyota teams.
"Especially for the 44 team," said crew chief Matt Borland, who left Penske Racing South to run Jarrett's team. "This is our first test we've been to. We're trying to get all the bugs worked out."
That's one reason some of the Toyota teams hung around for the Thursday morning session, a makeup for Monday afternoon's rainout, while other manufacturers left on Wednesday.
"We're going to take advantage of every minute that we've got," said Doug Richert, who left Roush Racing to become Vickers' crew chief.
Vickers spent much of testing with a qualifying setup, understanding the only way to guarantee a spot in the Daytona 500 is to be one of the two fastest cars in qualifying. The rest of the field is set by the order of finish in the 150-mile qualifying races.
Vickers, who came to Team Red Bull from Hendrick Motorsports, said it's unfair to assume Toyota will struggle from the outset.
"There is going to be some learning curves," he said. "When you saw Dodge come back into the sport it was a learning curve for them, but they won a race that first year and sat on a pole down here I believe.
"I don't think struggles is going to be the right word at all."
Vickers' former teammate, reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, expects Toyota to be a threat in Cup just as it already is in the Craftsman Truck Series.
Toyota began racing trucks in 2004 and this past season claimed the top six positions, winning the title with Todd Bodine.
"I definitely feel that they are going to be up there fighting for wins and a championship, but it just might take them a little time is all," he said.
Bobby Labonte said the concern isn't so much Toyota coming into the sport as it is seven new cars vying for a spot in the top 35 guaranteed a position in the field.
"That puts people out of the show on Sunday," said Labonte, whose Petty Enterprises teammate Kyle Petty barely slipped into the top 35 at the end of last season. "It's a competition thing, and it's going to get harder and harder."
At least for now, the competition between the Toyota teams isn't what it is between teams within other manufacturers. The engineers and crew chiefs at MWR, Bill Davis Racing and Team Red Bull have an open door policy when it comes to sharing information.
"That's what's been preached since the very first time that I spoke with Toyota representatives," Jarrett said. "They felt like in their model and in their plans that was the best way for all of us to become more successful more quickly.
"There will come a point in time that some of that will break away, but we have a ways to go before we get to that point."
Jarrett dispelled the ongoing dispute that Toyota has an advantage because it has the financial backing to spend more money than other manufacturers.
He said Toyota's approach to hiring isn't any different than when Dodge re-entered the sport with Ray Evernham.
"You can't take all novices and rookies and bring them in and expect to be pretty good, so you might have to pay someone a little bit more to get them to come over," he said.
"But I can tell you for a fact, because I know what we're paying a lot of these people, that they're not getting a huge raise to come work for Toyota, especially at Michael Waltrip Racing."
He said Toyota's advantage, particularly over Ford, is the engineering support that he begged for at RYR.
"Dodge did the same thing when they came in," Jarrett said. "They had the huge engineering staff and a lot of technology there and that's where their dollars were. ''
Borland, who has a degree in engineering and came from a company that had plenty of engineering, said the engineering support at Toyota has been "awesome."
"They've got a great group that comes to all of our tests," he said. "To show up at a test like this and be that close [in speed] right out of the box is impressive."
Jarrett has seen enough to be optimistic about his chances when he returns for the Daytona 500 that he won in 1993, '96 and 2000.
"Everything is there for that to happen," he said. "Will there be some growing pains? Yeah. Trying to find out exactly what they want at each different track will take us a little bit of time.
"But the possibility is there for us to be very competitive right from the start."
Perhaps that's why White was smiling.
"I spend most of my time on the computer working with [TRD] in California and North Carolina," he said. "The teams have their own things and they're doing it. I'm here to watch and learn.
"But so far, we're OK."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.