Toyota drafts behind Gibbs

There were no illusions about what it was going to take. There were no unreasonable expectations.

Even though Toyota had been impressive when it entered NASCAR competition in 2004 in the Craftsman Truck Series, winning its first of two championships the following year, the brain trust at Toyota Racing Development knew that, even with all its resources, success in the Sprint Cup Series would not happen overnight.

Despite its inauspicious inaugural season last year, Toyota has rallied, adding the established Joe Gibbs Racing team as the flagship of its stable last September. Toyota's ability to lure Joe Gibbs Racing away from General Motors was viewed as a huge coup.

It generated momentum that carried Toyota from a second-half surge at the end of last year to an impressive run in the first half of this season.

After finishing a distant fourth to Chevrolet in the manufacturers' championship last year, Toyota will arrive at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at the head of the pack, leading GM in manufacturers' points, 100-92. So far this season, Toyota has led a series-high 2,081 out of 4,979 laps while recording a series-high six wins, including five by Gibbs Racing driver and series points leader Kyle Busch, to go along with 23 top fives, 34 top 10s, and three poles by six drivers in 155 combined starts.

”Well, you have to look at everything right now, and we have enjoyed success this year, which is good, but primarily thanks in part to the association with Joe Gibbs Racing,“ said Lee White, senior vice president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development. ”It's obviously very interesting to examine what the Toyota part of that is, or is it all Kyle Busch, you know? So, that's the fun part.“

What wasn't fun was the uphill struggle Toyota waged to reach this point.

First there was the challenge of supplying engine and chassis support to its three teams, two of which which were start-up operations: Michael Waltrip Racing's three-car stable that fielded rides for then-rookie David Reutimann and Dale Jarrett; and Red Bull Racing's two-car team of Brian Vickers and then-rookie AJ Allmendinger. All this in a year in which NASCAR phased in, then fully implemented its Car of Tomorrow initiative.

”We knew going in, with the freshman class that we had, it was going to be three to five years to get those guys to acquire the people to get the job done,“ White said. ”I don't care who you are in this business, it is so competitive and it is so people-oriented that you have to have all the ingredients right.

”It doesn't matter if it's us or Ferrari or Honda or whoever. You can't just wave a magic wand and make that happen. It's a process of time and hard work and effort, and we knew that going in.“

Toyota's inaugural Sprint Cup campaign got off to a rocky start at Daytona when the performance of the Camry was not up to par with that of Chevrolet's Impala SS, Ford's Fusion, or Dodge's Charger. To make matters worse, Toyota's reputation was besmirched when NASCAR officials hit Waltrip's team with severe sanctions after the discovery of an illegal fuel additive in the air intake manifold of the Owensboro native's No. 55 Toyota during a pre-qualification inspection for the Daytona 500.

NASCAR fined Waltrip a then-record $100,000, docked him 100 owner and driver points, and placed on indefinite suspension crew chief David Hyder (who is no longer with the team) and vice president of competition Bobby Kennedy.

Toyota's woes were compounded when its teams struggled even to make races, recording a combined 41 DNQs (did not qualify) through 16 races, with Waltrip failing to make 12, including 11 in a row.

That was before Toyota seemed to turn the corner at New Hampshire last year.

Dave Blaney uplifted the sagging spirits at Toyota Racing Development when he followed up Vickers' fifth-place finish at Lowe's Motor Speedway last May by delivering Toyota its first Sprint pole victory in last year's Lenox Industrial Tools 300.

”That was huge,“ White said. ”What keeps people coming back every day and clocking in and doing this is just a little bit of success every once in a while.“

While Vickers' fifth at Charlotte was trumped by Blaney's third last fall at Talladega, where Waltrip gave Toyota its second pole victory, Toyota Racing Development's efforts were immeasurably bolstered when Gibbs arrived on the scene this year and proceeded to record all six of Toyota's victories (five by Busch, one by Denny Hamlin) thus far.

”We've worked extremely well together,“ Gibbs said of his first-year association with Toyota. ”It's only been a short period of time, but what I'm hoping is that, the farther we go, the more comfortable we get and, obviously, the more progress we make.“

Hamlin, who won last year's Lenox Industrial Tools in a Chevy and has one win (Martinsville, Va.), five top fives, and eight top 10s in the Toyota, said Gibbs deserves most of the credit.

”I don't think just because of the results the Gibbs cars are having (this year) is all related to what Toyota is doing for Joe Gibbs Racing,“ he said Hamlin. ”... They brought what they know from the Chevrolets over to the Toyotas, and I think a lot of that is a lot of hard work in the off-season.“

There's no question Mark Cronquist, Joe Gibbs Racing's head engine builder, and his team of 50 had to bear the brunt of that work, waiting until mid-December because of contractual obligations to GM before making the conversion to Toyota.

Cronquist and his crew had to sort out more than 1,120 parts on each of the 100 engines they built, which, he said, ”included every washer, nut, and bolt.“ Then there was the matter of building engines that were not only efficient but durable.

”Winning Atlanta kind of surprised me,“ Cronquist said, referring to Busch's first triumph in the fourth race of the season, ”because I didn't think we were that good at the time, power-wise. We're getting better and we're going to get better yet. The first 3-4 months of the year, we just struggled getting to the racetrack and getting the pieces put together and trying to make a little bit more power.“