Monday Rundown: It’s time to take Toyota seriously – ESPN
It was Friday morning, May 11, 2007, at Darlington Raceway. Dale Jarrett, in his final season as a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, took his place atop the photographers’ stand that overlooks Turn 1 at stock car racing’s most storied speedway.
He slipped in an earpiece, held the microphone in his hand and attempted to start an interview with SportsCenter.
The handful of fans in the mostly empty grandstand across the way had other ideas.
“D.J., you’re a traitor!”
“We thought you were American!”
The future NASCAR Hall of Famer laughed it off, winking at the cameraman and assuring the producer: “That doesn’t bother me. These days I hear that a good bit. They’ll get over it. Winning races always changes people’s minds.”
That afternoon, Jarrett’s Toyota Camry failed to qualify for the Southern 500. So did his boss and teammate. Michael Waltrip Racing was charged with ushering Toyota, the Japanese-based global auto maker, into the top level of American stock car racing. It wasn’t going well on the track — Jarrett and Waltrip combined for a whopping 31 DNQs that season. And it wasn’t going well off the track, either.
Despite having already had success in the Truck Series and despite having manufacturing facilities throughout the United States, Toyota’s foray into the realm of the good ol’ boys was met with plenty of jingoistic resistance.
And within the then-Nextel Cup Series garage, they weren’t met with merely plucky patriotism. They were greeted by panic, a concern fueled by Toyota’s previous entries into everything from off-road racing to Formula One.
Those efforts were often flooded with capital, building empires in a hurry, raising the costs for all, and then often moving on just as quickly as they’d arrived.
In their first three seasons among the Trucks, they started slow but then by Year 3 had earned all but three spots in the series’ top 10 and won a championship with Todd Bodine.
That history inspired Ford Racing executive Dan Davis to label them “a predator.”
Track mogul Bruton Smith claimed, “If they want to buy their way to a championship, they have the money to do it.”
Jack Roush, Ford legend and then among NASCAR’s two most powerful team owners, spoke of “going to war” and said Toyota “will upset the equilibrium of the sport.”
The other most powerful owner, longtime General Motors loyalist Rick Hendrick, was more cool-headed, welcoming the competition but qualifying his optimism by adding “I’ll worry about Toyota when the time comes.”
That time would appear to be now. And it’s not about dollars spent. It’s about trophies won.
A Toyota driver didn’t win the Bristol night race on Saturday night. That was newsworthy because the Ellipses logo had crossed the finish line first in six of the previous eight races. Even in defeat, Toyotas were the story of the night. They earned four of the top eight positions, posted five of the top six Driver Rating scores and combined to lead 320 of the race’s 500 laps.
Their night would have been even better if not for an early engine issue for Matt Kenseth, winner of two of the previous three races; a late accident by David Ragan; and a confusion-draped speeding penalty that shoved Kyle Busch — who’d led 192 laps — back to an eighth-place finish.
Over the past seven races, Toyotas have earned 25 top-eight finishes, this despite being outnumbered in entries. Most weeks Toyota fields nine cars vs. 20 Chevrolets and a dozen Fords. This after a 2014 season that brought only two race wins, none after May, and only one driver in the top six of the final points standings.
This year they have nine wins and are already guaranteed at least four drivers among the 16 postseason participants.
What makes those numbers even more impressive is when one realizes that only six of those nine entries — four from Joe Gibbs Racing and two from Michael Waltrip Racing — are legitimate full-race entries. Now the two MWR cars would appear to be lame ducks as team principal Rob Kauffman has announced the team will not field full-time cars in 2016.
Those low car counts make the brand’s first NASCAR Manufacturer’s Championship a practical impossibility, but that won’t matter if that tight roster manages to bring them their first Cup title.
Yes, Toyota is recruiting new teams to join their stable in the seasons ahead, but even if they do it would appear to be far from the cash-flooded doomsday predicted by their rivals not so long ago.
“There’s been nothing overnight about this success,” Joe Gibbs assured with a laugh during Kyle Busch’s three-race winning streak that kick-started Toyota’s resurgent summer. “We made the move to Toyota in 2008 after 16 years and three championships with General Motors. It was not an easy decision. And it’s no secret that we have had our growing pains. So have they.”
Toyota Racing Development worked with Gibbs and Waltrip to centralize the brand’s NASCAR efforts. That included convincing JGR to hand over engine manufacturing and persuading both teams to share notes.
A large chunk of that diplomacy fell to TRD president David Wilson, who has been with the organization for more than 25 years, working with every racing series imaginable. The largest part of the execution fell to TRD group VP and technical director Andy Graves, a man whose stock car roots go back to the earliest championship days at Hendrick Motorsports.
Their success this season, particularly during a roller coaster of seemingly ever-changing tech specs from NASCAR, has the feel of having finally arrived.
Now, as Darlington rolls around once again, Toyota teams aren’t greeted with jeers. Certainly not at 2007 volume. They are now just another part of the sport. And they’re also the brand that everyone else would appear to be chasing as the Chase approaches.
“But no, there have been no truckloads of money coming from Japan or California or anywhere else,” Gibbs adds. “Heck, man, I wish there had been!”
It’s nearly fall, which means it’s time for the annual speculation as to where Elliott Sadler will be next year. On Friday at Bristol he addressed reports that he’s looking to leave Roush Fenway Racing for JR Motorsports in 2016.
“I saw the reports come out just like you did and the report was about 50/50 — 50 percent true and 50 percent not true,” he said. “The true part was I had not signed and have not signed with anybody, so that part of the report was definitely true. The rest of it, I have no idea about.
“I don’t have anything to announce here today. We’re still working through some things for next year. I’ve told you guys this before: I want to be a part of this sport. I want to be competitive. I still think to this day that [in the] last five years there’s no other Xfinity regular that has more poles and more wins than I do and I want to keep that going.
“… There’s a lot of moving parts right now. There’s a lot of stuff going on right now in our sport. Just when you think something is gonna happen, something else happens over in the corner. There’s a lot of stuff going on, so we’ll see.”
Camping World Truck Series
On Wednesday, Ryan Blaney, son of Dave, earned his first NCWTS win of 2015, edging out Kyle Busch. Just behind them was John Hunter Nemechek, son of Joe, earning the best finish of his 21-race Truck Series career.
Also scoring a top-10: the number of gray hairs on this sportswriter’s head when he realized that those kids are no longer kids.