Toyota-Gibbs partnership a match made in NASCAR heaven

9/5/2007 - NASCAR

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- The podium on which an hour earlier it officially was announced that Joe Gibbs Racing was leaving General Motors after 16 years to join Toyota in 2008 had been torn down.

JGR president J.D. Gibbs was standing in front of a camera doing one take after another promoting his new manufacturer to which he'll be tied to probably as long as he's in NASCAR.

News crews that remained were breaking down equipment.

Watching it all were Jim Aust and Lee White, the top dogs of Toyota Racing Development.

Both were relaxed.

Both were smiling.

And with good reason. They'd just pulled off the equivalent of Babe Ruth being sold by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees, creating a potential rivalry between Chevrolet and Toyota that this sport so badly needs.

They definitely took Toyota to a level it never would have reached with its current lineup of Bill Davis Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull.

Tony Stewart versus Dave Blaney?

No contest.

"Basically, what we have is a championship-level team that is a member of NASCAR royalty, in my mind, that has made a historic decision to join TRD and Toyota probably for decades," White said.

The benefits for Toyota are obvious. They pick up a two-time Nextel Cup champion in Stewart, 2006 rookie of the year Denny Hamlin and 2005 rookie of the year Kyle Busch.

They get JGR's wealth of knowledge and expertise that has led to three championships -- Stewart in 2002 and 2005 and Bobby Labonte in 2000 -- over the past seven seasons.

So what does JGR get from a manufacturer that has produced only seven top-10s -- half of what Stewart has on his own -- this season?

The chance to be No. 1.

Unless something drastically changed, JGR always would be at least 1B to Hendrick Motorsports at GM. Unless something changed, the organization always would have to share with key partners HMS, Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc.

At Toyota, JGR clearly is at the top of the food chain. In comparison, the three teams below them are at best chopped liver.

Toyota also offers JGR more technical support -- 224 employees, according to White -- that it wouldn't necessarily get from Chevrolet.

Team that with the 420 at Gibbs and you have a monster organization.

"The other manufacturers in their organizations have ... half a dozen race-focus people?" White said. "And we have 224. The other manufacturers have an office and they utilize company assets. The company wind tunnel in Warren, Michigan. The company shaker rig in their R&D departments.

"They borrow it and the teams come and use it. The people that operate it aren't racing people."

White could have stopped there, but he didn't.

"TRD has two facilities in California," he said proudly. "We're building a facility here. We'll have five facilities nationwide to support this activity with two hundred and thirty-something by next year."

Those were things JGR couldn't turn its back on, particularly with several of the top Chevrolet teams such as RCR and DEI already merged with engine and chassis programs.

"For us it was a matter of who are we going to be partnered with going forward," Gibbs said. "For us, this is the right partner. If you look inside GM, all those groups currently already have partnerships established."

Gibbs also inherits Toyota's engine program, which on the surface doesn't appear strong with the seven teams making only about 60 percent of the races.

Basically, what we have is a championship-level team that is a member of NASCAR royalty, in my mind, that has made a historic decision to join TRD and Toyota probably for decades.

Lee White of Toyota Racing Development

But improvements have been made over the past month and, if you look at the engines Toyota has developed in the Craftsman Truck and Busch series, there's no reason to believe it won't be on par with other manufacturers by Daytona in February.

It might even be stronger than the new R-O7 introduced by Chevrolet this season.

"Do you think Mark Cronquist would have been OK with this move if he didn't think that?" White said of JGR's head engine builder.

Probably not. Cronquist as much admitted that himself.

"The one advantage we have switching to Toyota from, say the R-O7 engine, is with the R-O7 engine, nobody had raced it," he said. "If you look at everybody's R-O7 engines, the alternator might be on a different side or the oil pump may be on a different side. This engine's already built.

"So actually, we think it's going to be easier switching to the Toyota engine than it was to switch to the R-O7 engine. With the R-O7 engine, we had to do everything to it, and this engine's built and running right now."

Had anybody among JGR's top management -- and all were represented on the podium -- blackballed the decision Gibbs would have re-signed with GM.

Nobody did.

"So that in itself gives us a degree of confidence moving forward that this partnership will be something like we've never experienced before," White said.

Gibbs must believe that. Otherwise he wouldn't have gone to Toyota -- although he'll never admit it -- and seek this deal.

Stewart certainly wasn't complaining, and everybody knows how dark his mood turns if he's not winning or doesn't believe he has a chance to win.

If he didn't believe Toyota could help him get a championship, in his own words, he wouldn't be working toward a contract extension.

"I've always had the confidence in our program," he said. "I came here because I felt like this was my best opportunity to win races and championships. I didn't have to be sold on it. I was sold when I signed my first contract with these guys."

Aust and White know Stewart's personality can cause headaches down the road.

They also know the headaches are easier to deal with from Victory Lane.

Both fully expect to be there soon.

"We expect that this team and all of our teams will have the capability of winning next year," White said. "I would hope the three teams we have would lift their game and could, in fact, threaten to be a player before the end of this year."

That's a far cry from what White said last month at Watkins Glen. He bemoaned Toyota's engine program, saying the company as a whole wasn't ready for an elite program such as Gibbs.

"We're still not ready for them," White said with a wink. "We're going to have to giddyup to get there."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.