The Face Of Toyota

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With two races remaining on the 2006 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series calendar, the spotlight will be focused keenly on the championship battle between Todd Bodine and Johnny Benson as the series makes its yearly visit to Phoenix International Raceway for the Casino Arizona 150 this Friday night.

However, it is David Reutimann, the driver currently sitting third in the standings, who may garner the most attention this weekend from manufacturer Toyota – even though the two drivers atop the standings also compete in Tundra trucks.

Why?

It isn’t because he is contending for the championship – sure, he is still mathematically eligible, but with a daunting 165-point gap between himself and leader Bodine, it looks highly unlikely that a championship is in the cards for the driver of the No. 17 Team Tundra Racing Toyota truck.

It isn’t because the Zephyrhills, Florida resident is a young, up-and-coming driver within the series – at the tender age of 36, there are certainly younger and more promising drivers running Friday night.

It also isn’t because of his success this season – although Reutimann is having the best season of his career with seven top fives and 17 top 10s (tops amongst drivers in the Craftsman Truck Series), his contribution to Toyota’s first manufacturer’s championship will likely be overshadowed by Bodine and Benson’s combined seven victories and season-long battle for the title.

The reason Toyota’s top brass will be looking on with intent is simple – Reutimann is readying to become the face of Toyota’s NASCAR effort. Upon completion of the upcoming final two races, he will leave Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, his home since 2004, to join Michael Waltrip Racing, where he will compete full time in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup and NASCAR Busch Series in 2007.

While Dave Blaney will also run “double duty” next season, Reutimann will be the sole driver within the Toyota camp to drive for the Japanese manufacturer since they made their initial venture into one of NASCAR’s top three series - earning them their first Bud Pole Award at Atlanta on March 13, 2004 and also their first major honor, the 2004 Raybestos Rookie of the Year award.

"I’m an emotional kind of guy and the next couple of weeks are going to be tough for me," Reutimann said. "I’ve been with my truck guys for a long time and that will all change after Homestead. I’ll run a Craftsman truck race or two next year, but it’s never going to be the same. I’ve tried not to think about it because it makes me sad. I hope to have the opportunity to race with all of them again.

"They’re a great group of guys and we’ve had a lot of good times."

But before he makes his ascension, he is concentrating on Phoenix – where he scored a finish of seventh last season.

"We had a good truck last year, but we had a horrible qualifying draw and didn’t qualify well," said Reutimann, who qualified 27th last year at PIR.

"Hopefully, we’ll have a better qualifying effort this time."

Should Reutimann improve on last year’s qualifying and overall result at the 1-mile oval, several people keeping tabs on him throughout the weekend will have smiles on their faces.

After all, he’ll be representing them to the NASCAR world starting next season.

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