Camrys impress at Sprint preseason testing, may contend for wins
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- After a difficult -- some may even call it disastrous -- inaugural season at NASCAR's top level, Toyota has made marked improvements in its Sprint Cup program.
The two weeks of preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway showed that the 11 Camrys are fast and ready to challenge for wins.
Although Kasey Kahne posted the fastest overall speed in a Dodge, Toyota drivers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch had the next best speeds and Tony Stewart was 10th fastest. And in single-car runs, Camry drivers posted five of the top six speeds and 10 of the top 15.
It was a solid showing that had rivals wondering if a Toyota driver might score the manufacturer's first Cup victory at the season-opening Daytona 500.
Toyota officials were pleased with the showing, but were cautious to take too much away from testing.
"If I told you how many times I have won testing in 40 years!" said Lee White, senior vice president of Toyota Racing Development. "It's just testing, and it's really hard for me to get all jazzed up over testing because you don't know what people are doing. And there's a month left before we race. That's a lot of time for people to tune up their programs."
It is difficult to accurately gauge just where the Toyotas rank after one testing session on the 2½-mile superspeedway. NASCAR splits the session equally among single-lap runs and drafting, and nobody is certain what each team is even working on. Some may be looking for qualifying speed, while others may be fine-tuning race setups.
"This is the biggest game of chess," Sprint Cup director John Darby said. "All these teams are toying with each other, and no one wants to show their full hand. Yes, the Toyota's have been very impressive. But it's hard to say for sure where they stack up against the competition."
But the improvement goes way beyond rankings on the speed chart. Across the board, the teams are far more prepared than they were this time last season, and their programs have shown tremendous advancement.
Some of that can be attributed to time -- Red Bull Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing were startups last season and simply ran out of time to accomplish everything before Daytona.
"When we were here last year, it was just trying to throw everything together as quickly as we possibly could just to be here," said Dale Jarrett, who drives for Waltrip. "Now a year has gone by, and a lot has happened in that amount of time to make us that much better."
But credit should also be given to Joe Gibbs Racing, which joined Toyota this season and instantly became the leader of the five teams that field 11 cars. Gibbs is assisting TRD in engine development, has made many of its resources available to all the Toyota teams and allowed shock specialist Ronnie Crooks to visit with any team that wanted assistance during the test.
"We've already derived benefit from the addition of JGR to Toyota," said team owner Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 champion. "They know how much power they had here last year when they raced Chevrolets. They know what kind of aero they had.
"They're not going to give up any power or aero to race a Toyota. They want them to be the same or better."
When JGR left General Motors after 16 years with the manufacturer, team president J.D. Gibbs said it was so his family business could take a larger role in industry development. Overshadowed by Hendrick Motorsports in the Chevrolet camp, moving to Toyota gave JGR the opportunity to become a leader.
When the team made its official switch to Toyota in December, Gibbs visited with all the existing teams to offer his support.
"He went to Bill Davis Racing and Red Bull and to Michael, and he did that on his own and that's something we at Toyota are extremely grateful for," White said. "It assured our teams that Joe Gibbs Racing was here to help everyone, and it's because they realize the better the overall Toyota program is, the better Joe Gibbs Racing will be."
A specific set of Toyota engineers worked strictly on the restrictor-plate program that will be used in the Daytona 500, and that focus on one aspect contributed to the gains the teams have shown. But it's also created the possibility that the other programs still lag behind, and the first test will be later this month when NASCAR heads to an intermediate track test in Las Vegas and a superspeedway test in California.
White said Mark Cronquist, Gibbs' respected engine builder, has been given responsibility for making sure the cars have the horsepower needed to be competitive beyond Daytona.
It's also far too early to declare the teams ready for the season-opener. Only five of the 11 cars are guaranteed a spot in the 500 right now. And the unique qualifying format of the Daytona 500 means that only two cars will make it into the field on speed. The others must race their way in.
But TRD is determined to be ready.
"We all recognize that it begins and ends with the Daytona 500," White said. "It's the Super Bowl and we want 11 cars in that race. We don't know that we'll get all 11 in there, but we sure are going to try."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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