Toyota finds its place in NASCAR a decade after early resistance – USA TODAY
USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James breaks down key story lines leading into the Daytona 500.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Michael Waltrip showed up early to Daytona 500 media day and flashed the smile that won him a fan following and helped him become one of NASCAR’s top pitchmen.
The questions from reporters mostly revolved around the two-time Daytona 500 winner’s final start Sunday. A decade ago, the season-opening race was a more stressful and contentious time for Waltrip, who owned one of three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams powered by Toyota that made its debut here in 2007.
“Toyota had a plant in Georgetown, Ky., and employed a lot of hardworking Kentuckians and Americans all over our country to build their cars,” Waltrip, a Kentucky native, said Wednesday. “They just wanted to come race in NASCAR.”
Not all the fans wanted Toyota in NASCAR. And a few owners — with Roush Fenway Racing’s Jack Roush leading the charge — didn’t want the Japanese automaker to compete alongside domestic manufacturers Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge. Roush declared Toyota outspending other manufacturers could lead to “immediate and catastrophic” consequences.
MORE FROM DAYTONA:
He used harsher words about a possible Toyota takeover when reporters weren’t in earshot.
“Jack was one of the more outspoken owners,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told USA TODAY Sports. “But I think his perspective was more the exception than the norm. On the other hand, Rick Hendrick and Roger Penske, who are both large Toyota and Lexus dealers, were very welcoming. As a courtesy, Rick even hosted some of our Toyota executives for a private tour around his race shop before we started racing in the Camping World Truck Series.”
When Toyota began racing in the truck series in 2004, it didn’t publicly state whether it would eventually field teams in the Cup and Xfinity series. Wilson said Toyota went through a lengthy review process on whether such a move was worthwhile, using focus groups and surveys.
“We learned that Toyota’s potential NASCAR entry was very polarizing amongst the fan base,” Wilson said. “But we also learned how influential drivers could be in shaping fan’s opinions and considerations.
“One of the survey questions, for example, was, ‘What would you think if Toyota entered NASCAR?’ The answers were polarizing, with many fans frankly not being very accepting. However, when you were to rephrase the question to ask, ‘What would you think if Jeff Gordon (or their favorite driver) drove a Toyota in NASCAR?’ the answers were definitely more positive.”
WATCH: JIMMIE JOHNSON CHASING HISTORY
Hendrick Motorsports driver hopes to secure his eighth Cup Series title this season.
Toyota, however, eased into the Cup series by supplying and providing financial support to two new teams — Michael Waltrip Racing and Red Bull Racing — along with Bill Davis Racing.
“Like in trucks, we were not going to be coming in with top-ranked teams,” said Les Unger, Toyota Motor Sales USA’s former national motor sports manager.
Todd Bodine gave Toyota its first top-tier NASCAR driver and manufacturer titles in the Camping World Truck Series in 2006.
“I think (with the championship) fans realized that Toyota was here to stay,” Bodine told USA TODAY Sports. “They didn’t leave a lot of stones unturned when it came to understanding what their entry into the sport meant from a fan perspective. They also realized when they moved into the Cup series they wouldn’t be winning races and championships right away.”
That first year in Cup lacked much on-track success, but it did allay fan concerns.
“There was an element of the fan base that got angry at NASCAR,” Unger said. “They were asking, ‘How could NASCAR allow Toyota to do this?’ It was intense for the first year, but it died down.”
MORE FROM DAYTONA:
Joe Gibbs Racing, which had been powered by Chevrolet for years, was the first title-contending team to switch to Toyota, in 2008. Denny Hamlin quickly gave Toyota its first exhibition victory at a Gatorade 150 Duel before the season-opening Daytona 500. Toyota’s first points victory came from Kyle Busch at Atlanta Motor Speedway three weeks later.
In 2015, Busch gave Toyota its first Cup driver’s championship. Last year, Toyota earned its first Daytona 500 victory (Hamlin) and manufacturer’s title.
Mixed in were setbacks, including MWR’s two scandals. In 2007, the team was caught using a fuel additive during Daytona 500 qualifying, leading to two team members being suspended and crew chief David Hyder being fined $100,000. In 2013, MWR tried to manipulate how its drivers finished during a race in order to get Martin Truex Jr. into the playoffs. NASCAR booted Truex out of the 10-race title run, fined MWR a record $300,000, and suspended team general manager Ty Norris — a controversy that led to the loss of longtime sponsor Napa and the shuttering of MWR.
Waltrip will again be in a Toyota for Sunday’s Daytona 500, this time with Premium Motorsports.
“All the money they spent marketing and on the cars and the teams and all those things, I feel like were something that would help the sport,” Waltrip said. “I’m thankful that they asked us to be a part of it.”
GALLERY: HISTORY OF THE DAYTONA 500