DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Lee White, the imposing boss of Toyota’s American racing operations, walks tall these days.

He knew Toyota could succeed in NASCAR. Heck, everyone knew.

Now, as the Sprint Cup Series season opens, it’s apparent that that is exactly what’s happening.

“They may not need to be cocky yet,” said Dale Jarrett, the 1999 series champion who joined Toyota for its rookie 2007 season with Michael Waltrip Racing.

“But they have a good reason to have a big smile.”

Denny Hamlin’s victory Thursday in the second Gatorade Duel qualifying race put a grin on everyone from White to the Joe Gibbs Racing managers, who made the decision to join Toyota, to the owners and drivers and crewmen on the manufacturers’ three original teams.

Last year, four Toyota Camry’s started the Daytona 500. The field for Sunday has nine.

The most apparent factor is Gibbs.

“They’ve had lousy teams overall,” said Felix Sabates, a part-owner in Chip Ganassi’s Dodge team. “You’ve got to have great teams, and they’ve got one now.

“I’m afraid of them. I’m glad they only have Gibbs, because if they had Hendrick they’d be undefeated for all 36 races. The rest of us wouldn’t have a chance.”

What Gibbs brought to the program were three winning drivers – champion Tony Stewart and rookies of the year Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin – and a history of success from top to bottom.

Since 2000, Gibbs has won three championships, the same number as Hendrick Motorsports, as well as 37 points-paying Cup races.

Of Toyota’s original lineup. Waltrip and Red Bull were new, and Bill Davis Racing had won five times in its 15 years, most recently in 2002. Their entries qualified for fewer than 60 percent of their possible starts last season.

“We’ve already seen that that team in particular is going to help motivate and help in a lot of other ways to get the other Toyota teams going,” said Jarrett, who used the maximum seven past champion’s provisionals last year to qualify for 24 of 36 races.

But the improvement goes deeper than the addition of one team.

Toyota has succeeded everywhere it has competed worldwide, except in Formula One. Improvement was inevitable.

“I knew that when I came on to Red Bull, that it wasn’t about “07, it was about what the future holds,” Brian Vickers said. “Going into this season we have a lot more confidence.

“Toyota has come a long ways when it comes to power and reliability and everything.”

Gibbs was counting on that, too.

Toyota Racing Development, the California-based company headed by White, had dozens of engineers designing and redesigning pieces for its engines. Gibbs engine guru Mark Cronquist switched from one Chevrolet specification to another for 2007 and then to Toyota for “08 just as seamlessly.

“Definitely was a big guy that liked to switch over to a Toyota,” Hamlin said. “They had some engine issues last year they said they wanted to work on, mainly being corner exit. It feels like from my standpoint they’ve got that fixed.

“So as soon as us drivers come up with something else that we need to work on with the engine program, I’m sure between Joe Gibbs Racing and TRD they’re going to get it fixed. That’s something that we just can’t do with the allotment of people that we have at Joe Gibbs Racing.”

Toyota successfully employed an all-for-one strategy in coming into the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series to win the title in that series with Todd Bodine in 2006, its third year in NASCAR.

Larger budgets and a higher level of competition make sharing harder at the Sprint Cup level, but it occurs more in the Toyota camp than elsewhere.

Teams have access to each other’s wind-tunnel numbers, and TRD coordinates the search for answers to common problems.

“If you get down to part X2938 that really makes a difference – we haven’t found that part yet – if it’s something that your team invested all the money in and you developed it, that’s going to be team proprietary,” said Phillipe Lopez, competition director for Hall of Fame Racing, which followed Gibbs.

“If it’s something that Toyota developed or helped to develop, then obviously it gets shared by everybody.”

Success, Toyota and its teams hope, will be shared, as well.

(c) 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):


AP-NY-02-15-08 2300EST

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