Speedy test session has NASCAR buzzing about Toyota improvement

Published 1:02 am Friday, January 18, 2008

By By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — After a difficult — some may even call it disastrous — inaugural season at NASCAR’s top level, Toyota has made marked improvements in its Sprint Cup program.
The two weeks of preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway showed that the 11 Camrys are fast and ready to challenge for wins.
Although Kasey Kahne posted the fastest overall speed in a Dodge, Toyota drivers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch had the next best speeds and Tony Stewart was 10th fastest. And in single-car runs, Camry drivers posted five of the top six speeds and 10 of the top 15.
It was a solid showing that had rivals wondering if a Toyota driver might score the manufacturer’s first Cup victory at the season-opening Daytona 500.
Toyota officials were pleased with the showing, but were cautious to take too much away from testing.
It is difficult to accurately gauge just where the Toyotas rank after one testing session on the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway. NASCAR splits the session equally among single-lap runs and drafting, and nobody is certain what each team is even working on. Some may be looking for qualifying speed, while others may be fine-tuning race setups.
But the improvement goes way beyond rankings on the speed chart. Across the board, the teams are far more prepared than they were this time last season, and their programs have shown tremendous advancement.
Some of that can be attributed to time — Red Bull Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing were startups last season and simply ran out of time to accomplish everything before Daytona.
But credit should also be given to Joe Gibbs Racing, which joined Toyota this season and instantly became the leader of the five teams that field 11 cars. Gibbs is assisting TRD in engine development, has made many of its resources available to all the Toyota teams and allowed shock specialist Ronnie Crooks to visit with any team that wanted assistance during the test.
When JGR left General Motors after 16 years with the manufacturer, team president J.D. Gibbs said it was so his family business could take a larger role in industry development. Overshadowed by Hendrick Motorsports in the Chevrolet camp, moving to Toyota gave JGR the opportunity to become a leader.
When the team made its official switch to Toyota in December, Gibbs visited with all the existing teams to offer his support.
A specific set of Toyota engineers worked strictly on the restrictor-plate program that will be used in the Daytona 500, and that focus on one aspect contributed to the gains the teams have shown. But it’s also created the possibility that the other programs still lag behind, and the first test will be later this month when NASCAR heads to an intermediate track test in Las Vegas and a superspeedway test in California.
White said Mark Cronquist, Gibbs’ respected engine builder, has been given responsibility for making sure the cars have the horsepower needed to be competitive beyond Daytona.
It’s also far too early to declare the teams ready for the season-opener. Only five of the 11 cars are guaranteed a spot in the 500 right now. And the unique qualifying format of the Daytona 500 means that only two cars will make it into the field on speed. The others must race their way in.
But TRD is determined to be ready.