Toyota lands Jarrett for 2007 season

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DARLINGTON, S.C. (P) – Dale Jarrett became Toyota’s first big-name driver Saturday, agreeing to drive a Camry next season when the Japanese automaker makes its NASCAR debut.

Jarrett, a former series champion, will drive one of Michael Waltrip’s two cars. Waltrip will drive the other and has not ruled out fielding a third entry.

“When Michael called me, I thought about it quite a while and I saw a new challenge there,” Jarrett said. “To help build something new is pretty exciting to me.”

American automakers have been bracing for Toyota’s arrival, which is expected to bring an influx of cash into the sport in an effort to win quickly and lure top talent. But aside from Waltrip, who will be one of the three inaugural car owners, Toyota has yet to secure a lineup.

Kevin Harvick spurned an offer from Toyota by agreeing last week to stay with General Motors and Richard Childress Racing into 2009. So Jarrett, who is in his 12th year driving a Ford for Robert Yates Racing, becomes the first major defection.

Jarrett scored all but three of his 32-career victories in a Ford, including three Daytona 500s and the 1999 championship.

“We’re obviously not happy Dale is leaving Robert Yates Racing because he’s been a champion and a great ambassador for Ford fans,” said Dan Davis, director of Ford Racing Technology. “Toyota is going to have its work cut out for them competing in Nextel Cup, no matter how much they plan on spending. Our plan is to keep winning races and championships.”

Ford and RYR wanted to keep the 49-year-old Jarrett, who plans to retire following the 2008 season. Only they couldn’t compete with the offer Waltrip and Toyota put together.

He “told us that he really wanted to stay here and really loved our race team and what we’ve built together,” Doug Yates said. “A little time later, though, he came back and said they made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse.”

Yates, son of team founder Robert Yates, said they weren’t surprised.

“Toyota’s history and background is throwing a lot of money around, and here is one of those examples,” he said.

Jarrett insisted financial gain was not the lure.

“The biggest thing is this opportunity to help Michael and his people and Toyota start something new. … I wasn’t going to have opportunity to do that again cause I’m getting that toward end of my career,” he said.

The decision wasn’t popular with Jarrett loyalists.

“I pulled for him for a long time, I hope he changes his mind,” said race fan Eddie Lambert of Anderson.

Jarrett was prepared for that reaction.

“There comes time when you have to make a decision for yourself,” he said. “And this is a decision we made.”

It’s not clear what will happen with sponsor UPS, which has been on Jarrett’s No. 88 Ford since 2001. The shipping company has spent considerable advertising money to align itself with the driver, and could go with him to Waltrip’s team. Waltrip has made initial inquiries with UPS, which is in the final year of its contract with Yates. Doug Yates, who needs to find a new driver in a thin talent pool, didn’t seem overly concerned with the possibility of finding a new sponsor.

“People are going to realize that the 88 is a good seat with a good car number, good sponsor and good history,” Yates said. “We wish more than anything that UPS will stay with us. Whether they’re here or not, we’re committed to the future of Robert Yates Racing and making it strong.”

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