How can Toyota get better? Don't ask Dodge
How can Toyota get better? Don't ask Dodge
How can Toyota get better? Don't ask Dodge
June 14, 2007
Is Toyota going to be like Dodge?
DaimlerChrysler made its heavily publicized return to the NASCAR Cup series in 2001. The theme was "It's Time," as in it's time for DaimlerChrysler to again have a major presence in the sport that Dodges, Plymouths and Chryslers once ruled.
That was the idea. The reality has been something less than sensational.
Despite hooking up with some serious shakers and movers -- people like Ray Evernham, Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske -- in the team ownership field and despite the presence of drivers like Kasey Kahne, Bill Elliott, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Rusty Wallace and Bobby Labonte, Dodge has underachieved. There have been no championships, and wins have not been recorded as frequently as those in the Dodge camp had hoped.
This season, through 14 races, there have been no Dodge wins, and no Dodge drivers are in the top 12 in points.
Although a learning curve of some degree was expected when Dodge made the considerable investment of time, resources and dollars to rejoin the fray at the top level of stock car racing, most observers would have predicted a better return on that effort by this point.
Toyota's struggle in its first season in Cup has been similarly frustrating. The embarrassing journey of Michael Waltrip has been the most difficult. He was the object of national shame before the season opener at Daytona because of a cheating scandal that rocked the sport, then plunged into a long purgatory, failing to qualify for race after race after race. For months, he carried a singular scar: Because of Daytona penalties, his Nextel Cup points total was actually in negative numbers -- the kind of calculations done more often in eighth-grade math class than in NASCAR standings.
The Toyotas have had a few splashes of positive reinforcement, but they needed 12 races to score their first top five finish, a fifth place by Brian Vickers in the Coca-Cola 600.
What's next? Look for improvement in the Toyota camp now that a reworked engine has been introduced and some of the Camry's bugs have been worked out. It's unlikely, though, that a quantum jump will occur. A win this year? Maybe.
Although Toyota did not sign a deal with one of the sport's leading teams to start its first season, there now are indications that it is casting about for bigger prey. That may be the best route to putting the manufacturer in a solid position quicker, although there still would be a period of adjustment.
As NASCAR moves into the heart of its season, both Toyota and Dodge -- winless and wandering -- need a big boost.
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If the hype was to be believed, Toyota would be a status quo-altering force in the NASCAR Nextel Cup series in its first season.
Dan Davis, director of Ford Racing Technology, called the new competitors "predators" with an unlimited budget to woo top engineers and crew chiefs. Livonia-based team owner Jack Roush, who races Fords, was "preparing for a siege" and "going to go to war with them."
Not so fast. Through 14 races -- and heading into Sunday's Citizens' Bank 400 at Michigan International Speedway -- nothing about Toyota's performance has struck fear in its competitors.
Toyota driver Brian Vickers has a fifth- and a 10th-place finish this season. But most weeks the seven Camry drivers have trouble just getting into the race.
"People thought Toyota would blow through the garage like a tornado," said David Reutimann, who drives a Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing. "People who knew better knew that wasn't going to happen. It's a work in progress."
Still, Lee White, senior vice president and general manager for Toyota Racing Development, is of the opinion Toyota could win a race this year.
"I think Michigan might be fun," White said, smiling at the irony of such a victory in the backyard of Ford, GM and Dodge. "You have to get your first win somewhere."
The Toyota fleet is composed of two upstart teams, Michael Waltrip Racing and Red Bull Racing, and the more established Bill Davis Racing, which switched from Dodge.
"As I told people before we got to (the season-opening race at) Daytona, you know all this stuff in the paper, predictions that we're going to change the sport as we know it, there is no way this is possibly going to happen, not with new teams, new drivers, new engines, not against teams that have been there for years," said Les Unger, national motor sports manager for Toyota. "There is no way in hell we're going to come in and run up front -- it can't happen.
"We knew what we were capable of doing the first year, and it's proven out. Do we want to do better? Absolutely. Have we had bright spots? Yes. From our perspective, it's going to get better; it's going to improve."
Deep pockets feared
That, quite frankly, is the fear among Toyota competitors. Roush said before the season that Toyota will change the way every other team in the Nextel Cup garage conducts business, because of the alleged deep pockets of the manufacturer.
"I don't know if they have an open checkbook," Davis said this week. "If you go into the garage, we have a pretty good idea what a crew chief is getting paid, what a driver is getting paid, we know what sponsors are spending. We've got a lot of history in this.
"When you see some of the things that they are getting done and the money invested ... we have a pretty good idea that they're outspending us by a large margin. We're not at that level. We're not spending at the level that we think they're spending."
Unger guffaws at such remarks.
"When they say, 'They're outspending us,' the first thing we want to say is, 'Would you tell us what you're spending, so we can tell you?' " Unger said. "How in God's name do they know what we're spending? We've budgeted what we feel the other manufacturers are spending. We are spending what we feel we need to be competitive.
"Do we budget? Absolutely. One word constantly affixed to Toyota is conservative. Not only in terms of how you conduct business, but what you spend. Spending wildly is not in the company's DNA."
What is the company's genetic blueprint in every motor sports series it has entered, is slow, steady growth.
Toyota, which saw its involvement in Nextel Cup racing as a way to boost its Tundra truck sales in the consumer marketplace, first made its appearance on the NASCAR scene in 2004 in the Craftsman Truck Series, and, ironically, earned its first victory at MIS that season.
Toyota won the Truck Series manufacturers title last season with 12 victories and driver's title with Todd Bodine. Mike Skinner, a Toyota driver, currently leads the points.
The automaker has two runner-up finishes this season in the NASCAR Busch series, too.
So, there's no panic about this season's early results.
'Racing each other'
Drivers ranked in the top 35 have an automatic spot in every 43-car field. There are no Toyota drivers in the top 35, so all must qualify for one of the final eight spots.
"It's hard because we're all racing each other to get a spot," said driver Dave Blaney, who has made 12 starts.
Dale Jarrett has made 11, Reutimann nine, Vickers eight and Jeremy Mayfield five.
Clearly, the biggest disappointment has been Michael Waltrip, who owns a three-car team for which he is one of the drivers. His year began embroiled in controversy at the season-opening Daytona 500 when an illegal substance was found in his fuel after qualifying. The team was hit with a $100,000 fine, docked points and endured the stigma of cheating.
Still, Waltrip raced in the Daytona 500. It is one of only two races he has made this season.
"Our performance as a whole is less than what I anticipated," said Doug Richert, crew chief for Vickers. "I didn't think we'd miss as many races. I didn't think we'd struggle to get in, but it is getting better. We keep working harder and harder. We're digging. We can see the progress ourselves."
Vickers has been a bright spot. In the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway on May 27, Vickers had a legitimate shot to win before a power-steering problem. He finished fifth, Toyota's best finish.
"I continue to say we're going to win a race before the end of the year," Richert said.
"(Toyota is) right about where I thought they would be," said Mike Accavitti, director of Dodge brand and SRT marketing. "This (sport) is more humbling than golf, as far as I'm concerned. They'll get it right. They'll learn.
"One thing I've learned watching Toyota in the auto industry over the last 30 years is that they might not get it right out of the chute, but they learn very quickly, and they change and they make tweaks and they improve.
"When that isn't quite right, they make some more tweaks and they'll change and they'll improve and they'll do that until they get it right. I can't tell you if it's going to be this year. It's just a matter of time until they make it to victory lane. Hopefully Dodge does it before, that's all."