Transition from GM to Toyota in full swing for Joe Gibbs Racing

12/3/2007 - NASCAR

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- The Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin display cars in the lobby of Joe Gibbs Racing still have Monte Carlo on the nose. Nothing else as one enters the building suggests the organization has switched from Chevrolet to Toyota, either.

"Unless you knew, you couldn't tell the difference," said Mark Conquist, the head engine builder at JGR.

But rest assured, the transition has begun.

It actually began shortly after JGR announced in September that it would end its 16-year association with General Motors to team with the Japan-based manufacturer.

Parts were ordered so construction of 2008 Camrys could begin. Engineers were sent to Toyota's three existing Nextel Cup organizations and Toyota Racing Development in California to begin exploring ways to make the engine more reliable and powerful.

The process will continue long after Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson gave his acceptance speech for winning a second consecutive Nextel Cup title at last Friday's banquet in New York City.

"We have just been trying to help with templates and body parts and pieces, and getting things to fit and work, and try to implement some of the systems we use and take some of the systems they use, and hopefully make us all better," said Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief.

The change in the body department has been relatively uneventful because, outside of the nose and tail, the chassis for the Car of Tomorrow that will be fully implemented next season will be the same for all four manufacturers.

The biggest challenge will be switching out about 100 engines. Conquist, who is overseeing that transformation, said only one Toyota engine currently is in the shop.

"We're just now really getting started," he said. "They [TRD] have built motors already, so the first couple of tests we go to will basically be their spec engine assembled by us. The first 20 or 30 engines we'll build to what they tell us to.

"After we clear the first ones, we'll decide how we want to build them or if there is anything we want to change. If we agree or disagree with them, it all depends."

Conquist would not comment on when JGR began assembling engines or collecting parts. Lee White, the senior vice president for TRD, said discussions about the necessary parts and engineering support required have been ongoing for some time.

"There's been quite a bit of work going on behind the scenes, but nothing that was relative to what was going on this year," he said.

Skeptics suggest the transition to Toyota had something to do with the struggles of Stewart and Hamlin in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Stewart finished sixth, 481 points behind Johnson. Hamlin wound up 12th, 580 back.

Zipadelli assured the move to Toyota was not a factor, reminding both drivers ran into troubles that Johnson and second-place Jeff Gordon of HMS didn't. He also said the HMS cars simply were that much better than the rest of the field.

"They [could] run at 95 percent and turn it up where we had to run at 100 percent all the time," Zipadelli said. "I thought at midseason we were close. They just did a better job than everybody else."

Conquist said there definitely was not a drop in engine performance, adding he would be surprised if any of the 12 teams in the Chase played with motors once the 10-race playoff began.

"The only reason we took the Toyota stuff out of the building was that way we wouldn't be distracted with it, knowing TRD out in California was doing most of the work for us," he said.

Conquist said there was some tinkering with the engines of cars driven by J.J. Yeley of JGR and Tony Raines of Hall of Fame Racing because "we knew the Toyotas [have] certain things in them we weren't used to running."

"We were actually building those motors trying to get comfortable with some of the stuff they do," he said. "Some of the rules written by NASCAR we weren't to that edge, but they were."

Twelve of Conquist's engineers have visited TRD within the past few weeks for training and "to make sure when they start putting the motors together they don't look at a part and say, 'What the heck is this?' "

But Conquist said the transition from Chevrolet's new R-07 engine to Toyota actually has gone smoother than the transition from the old Chevrolet engine to the R-07.

"It'll take us a week or so and we'll get right back in the hang with it," he said.

So does that mean Conquist is happy with the power of the Toyota engine?

"Call me next week and I'll know better," he said. "It's got decent power. They build theirs a little different than [we] do. We've just got to make sure our way is better than their way."

White hopes adding JGR, as well as Hall of Fame Racing's single-car team, to the stable of Bill Davis Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull will help Toyota close the gap on HMS and everybody else in the garage.

The top three Toyota drivers from last season -- Dave Blaney, Brian Vickers and David Reutimann -- combined for no wins, two top-5s and nine top-10 finishes. Stewart, Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who will replace Yeley, combined for six wins, 34 top-5s and 61 top-10s.

"It's certainly a big step in the right direction," White said of adding JGR. "Whether that's enough given the way the Hendrick guys are running remains to be seen.

"Anybody that is in the series has to be concerned about that because they have proven to be so dominant. But that is the nature of the game. Right now we're just focused on the teams we have and getting our product where it needs to be."

That means throwing all the support Toyota can at JGR.

"Bringing in a race-winning championship team like Gibbs brings nothing but positives for all of us," Bill Davis said. "It'll raise the bar for sure. It will be to our advantage to help J.D.'s guys [team president J.D. Gibbs] get going as fast as we can."

Zipadelli isn't concerned. He has enough confidence in those employed by JGR to believe the organization won't take a step backward. He said Conquist already has discovered things with the engine to make it better.

"I don't think any of this is going to be a big deal," he said. "The biggest deal is making sure our motors are reliable for Daytona and us being able to adapt to their systems and their resources to make sure we don't miss a beat.

"We've got a lot of cars built. Right now, everything is going smooth."

Perhaps, but Conquist doesn't expect a break before Daytona.

"We may be [full go] all the way to Charlotte," he said of the May race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "Then it may settle down. It's going to be a pretty long offseason for us."

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