- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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At least Toyota's Busch Series teams have something to smile about. The key will be seeing if their recent success carries over into Saturday's O'Reilly 300 at Texas Motor Speedway (ESPN2, 2:30 ET). If so, the teams will truly have something to build upon heading into the heart of the season.
Granted a number of the full-time Cup drivers who make the Busch Series their personal playground weren't on hand at Nashville Superspeedway last Saturday, but that doesn't diminish what the three Toyotas in the field accomplished.
David Reutimann came home second, with Dave Blaney third and Jason Leffler fourth. Blaney sits second in points -- even if that's a whopping 321 points behind runaway leader Carl Edwards, who is threatening to become this year's version of Kevin Harvick.
Reutimann is fifth in points, the lone bright spot in what's been a season to forget thus far for Michael Waltrip Racing. And the Toyotas had their strong showing in the first race after NASCAR mandated a different intake manifold, one designed to eliminate the horsepower advantage the manufacturer had to start the season.
Good-handling cars can make up for a lack of horsepower and the Toyota contingent demonstrated that at Nashville. Blaney just hopes for another solid run at Texas.
"We had a really good run last weekend in Nashville. All the Toyotas ran well there and that shows what they're capable of," Blaney says. "So far this year, Toyota runs well at the intermediate tracks and our team enjoys going to the mile-and-a-halfs because we seem to have them figured out.
"We ran well at California, Las Vegas and Atlanta but didn't have the finishes to show for it at Vegas or Atlanta. I enjoy racing at Texas Motor Speedway and I think this weekend could be the one for this team to shine."
While the Nashville finishes were important for Blaney and Reutimann in terms of the standings, no one needed a solid run more than Leffler, who'd been involved in accidents that left him in the garage in four of the year's first six races.
Having won poles at TMS in both a Busch car and the Craftsman Truck Series, he's looking forward to the race.
"Texas is fast and slick with a wide racing surface. In the beginning stages of the race, you'll see most cars riding along the bottom, but as the tires wear out the second and third grooves will start coming in as drivers begin to move up the track to find more grip," Leffler says. "There's a lot of two- and three-wide racing at Texas and a lot of lead changes. It pretty much always comes down to the last lap at Texas which is what makes it such a popular race among fans and drivers."
Leffler thinks his Nashville run might have been even better if not for a loose wheel late in the race. That dashed any hopes of winning, but he still salvaged the day.
"When Carl [Edwards, the race winner] got by me, it started to get really bad and I had to let David and Dave by," Leffler said. "It was a great day and we needed this for sure. We're capable of running up front and the two races we've finished without problems we finished in the top 10, so if we keep doing that, we'll be fine."
Toyota is still searching for its first win, but Blaney hopes to climb into the thick of the championship race. But if Edwards keeps ripping off wins and top-5s, Blaney knows it won't be easy.
"You know that Carl is always going to run up front and in the top five," Blaney said. "Maybe he'll help us out a couple of times and break or something, but he's got a good team so we just have to get up there with him, stay consistent and run near the front."
At Texas, the Toyota teams will be looking for a repeat of Nashville. And if they do it in a field full of Cup drivers, it will be another giant step forward.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
NASCAR newcomer Toyota is having a heckuva time righting the ship in Nextel Cup. Not so in the Busch Series, writes Mark Ashenfelter.