Toyota a work in progress as debut season begins
Toyota is entering Nextel Cup racing for the first time, and to some it's a dark day. But wins will be sparse -- if not impossible -- as the manufacturer's three teams get off the ground. David Newton breaks down the teams' 2007 outlook.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The way Ford owner Jack Roush explains it, Toyota's entry into the Nextel Cup Series is comparable to the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.
He's used more war terms to describe how he plans to battle the Japan-based manufacturer than General George S. Patton used to fire up the troops in World War II.
"Toyota will not find that the established teams and manufacturers will wither in their path, as has been the case where they have tried to engage elsewhere," Roush said.
Toyota entered NASCAR's premier series hoping to promote U.S. car sales, not run other manufacturers out of the sport.
"It's about spreading the news about Toyota and giving the fans the opportunity to learn more about what our organization is about," said Jim Aust, the president and CEO for Toyota Racing Development.
"We need to educate the buying public about Toyota and this is a good way for us to do that."
Toyota also came to NASCAR to win races just as it has in every other series. Tundras won 12 of 25 Craftsman Truck Series events a year ago and won the series title with Todd Bodine.
Were it not for Mark Martin winning six of the 14 races he entered in a Ford, it might have been worse for the other manufacturers.
But Toyota officials understand it will be more difficult to be successful in Cup than in trucks because of the amount of established, well-funded teams. Toyota had four of eight cars make the field for the Daytona 500.
"We want to be a competitor first of all," Aust said. "And once you establish you're competitive, winning will become part of the program. Is it absolutely necessary? Certainly that's one of the goals we have.
"How soon that will happen is a big function of what we learn early on this year and into the next year."
The biggest complaints when Toyota announced it would begin the 2007 season with seven full-time teams -- three with Michael Waltrip Racing and two each with Bill Davis Racing and Team Red Bull -- were from owners such as Roush concerned with Toyota's seemingly bottomless pocketbook.
Aust insisted he can't compare numbers because he doesn't know what other teams are spending, but he didn't believe Toyota is out of line with other manufacturers in spending.
"Our willingness is to extend out funding into the talent we can bring as opposed to sending checks," he said.
Davis agreed, saying Toyota's spending is in line with that of other manufacturers with large teams.
Davis, who raced a Dodge without manufacturer's support a year ago, said Toyota's entrance is different than Dodge's return to NASCAR six years ago.
"The difference being that Dodge went with very established teams that were winning races and running up front, top-10 in points," he said. "These guys and the level of competition then is not like now.
"These guys have come in and didn't hire a big team. They took a team like mine that's not where it needed to be and helped to rebuild it, and two completely fresh start-up teams. Not quite the same scenario."
Michael Waltrip Racing
No Toyota owner has gotten bigger headlines than Michael Waltrip, from his signing of 1999 Cup champion Dale Jarrett and sponsor UPS to NASCAR handing out severe penalties to his team for rule violations in qualifying for the Daytona 500.
Only Jarrett, because of his past champion's provisional, was guaranteed a spot in the first five races. Waltrip and rookie David Reutimann had to qualify their way in. Waltrip had a tough time getting into the top 35 guaranteed a spot all season after being docked 100 championship points, but he did it with his finish in the first Gatorade Duel.
But Waltrip isn't focused on the short term. Everything is aimed at the future, including his state-of-the-art race shop that he hopes will be a destination for race fans.
"I'm not kidding," Waltrip said. "We can sit around three or four years from now and laugh and say, 'Boy, that was a dumb idea, wasn't it?' And I'll say, 'Yeah, but hell it sounded good, didn't it?'
"I just believe in what we're doing. I believe David Reutimann can win races. I believe DJ can win races. I don't believe my best years are behind me."
Outlook: The penalties at Daytona were an embarrassment for Waltrip. It could be a long season for all three teams if they get off to a slow start. Jarrett won only two races the past four years at Robert Yates Racing and hasn't finished better than 15th in points during that span. Reutimann has driven in only one Cup race, finishing 22nd at Charlotte, N.C., a year ago. Waltrip has no wins and only five top-5s over the past three seasons. He finished a career-worst 37th in points a year ago.
Bill Davis Racing
Davis' organization often gets overlooked because he didn't sign any big-name drivers and sponsors like his Toyota counterparts, but he has a chance to be the most successful early on.
"It's not like we haven't been doing this for a long time," Davis said.
Davis has five wins, 98 top-10 finishes and $31 million in winnings since entering the series in 1983. He won the 2002 Daytona 500 with Ward Burton.
"We've had some tough times here lately," said Davis, who hasn't had a win since 2002. "But we know what we're doing."
Davis will field two cars with Dave Blaney and Jeremy Mayfield. Blaney is locked into the first five races based on last year's finish in the top 35 in points and Mayfield is the only Toyota driver who has been in the Chase, doing it in 2004 and 2005 with Evernham Motorsports.
Davis is optimistic about the season, particularly with access to the 200 people in Toyota Racing Development.
"They're racing people, and that's all they do, all day long, every day," he said. "And that's what makes the difference. That's why they're successful in everything they do."
Outlook: Blaney came on strong toward the end of last season. His fourth-place showing at Richmond was the first top-5 for BDR since 2004. He had one of the fastest Toyotas during preseason testing and should have no trouble staying in the top 35. Mayfield has something to prove after being pushed out the door at Evernham Motorsports, and he believes he has the equipment to do it. A top-20 season is not out of the question.
What they don't have is experience in Cup.
Vickers, 23, is the senior member with 23 top-10s and one victory in three full seasons for Hendrick Motorsports. Allmendinger won five Champ Car races in 2006 and is the 2004 Champ Car rookie of the year, but he has no Cup experience. An accident took him out of the first Gatorade Duel and he will miss the Daytona 500.
Aust said Team Red Bull "seems to be looking for a little bit of help."
"They're basically starting with almost nothing as far as information is concerned about the track, other than what was brought with the people Red Bull has been able to hire," he added. "So I think maybe they might be a little bit behind in that regard."
Outlook: Vickers left Hendrick Motorsports to escape the shadows of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch. Now he's in the shadows of Waltrip, Jarrett and others who will struggle to make races. Allmendinger has potential, but it'll be a few years before we see it. Neither driver made the 500.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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