2008 – Toyota, take 2

as seen on SpeedwayMedia.com Feb. 6, 2008

By Joe Dunn / joe@onpitroad.com

Toyota entered the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series with BIG hopes to achieve early success like they did in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series. It appeared that they took a page from the Dodge playbook to re-enter Nascar by using a well known racing personality to spearhead their Flagship team. To this end, they put their hope and trust in Michael Waltrip, just like Dodge did with Ray Evernham.
The big splash was to come at Daytona as the Toyota fleet was highlighted by every media outlet. Hopes for positive results at qualifying were dashed when the 55 car was suddenly impounded after qualifying. They rest is history as the embarrassment of being caught cheating was not the press Toyota desired. It became a season of bitter disappointments for the new car with several races being missed. Toyota ended the season with one car in the top 35 in owner’s points, the 22 of Dave Blaney in 34th place.
Chalk 2007 up to experience because 2008 already shows a lot more promise. During that slump in late 2007, Toyota did not sit on their hands, they reached out for help and they reached HIGH. The reach paid off as they landed Joe Gibbs Racing, a major coup from Chevrolet. JGR wasted no time in the off season as they prepared several cars and early testing results have shown that the right team was brought in. At every testing session, the Gibbs Toyotas have been up front in speed rankings. As if that alone was not a big plus, the other Toyota teams are also showing improvements.
This weekend there will be 6 Toyotas in the Bud Shoot Out, and the talent in those rides are some of the hottest in Nascar. It will be very interesting to see what success they see Saturday. Sunday will be Qualifying for the 500 and look for at least 11 Toyota teams to enter as opposed to 6 in 2007. This year Toyota will also start the season with 6 teams guaranteed to start the first 5 races with Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, JJ Yeley and Dave Blaney all in the top 35 from 2007, plus Dale Jarrett with the past champions provisional. In 2007, only Blaney was in the top 35 and joined by Jarret as the only 2 guaranteed starters.
I won’t go as far as to predict a championship for Toyota this year, but I will sure be looking for them to win at least a few. The obvious drivers to watch will be Stewart, Hamlin and Busch, but I would not count out Yeley or Reutimann. All in all, look for Toyota to make that Big Splash they wanted in 2007 to happen in 2008.