NASCAR 2008: Toyota

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Toyota's debut season on the NEXTEL Cup Series wasn't exactly what the manufacturer had hoped for when plans were announced to move into NASCAR's top division.

The season began with the Daytona fiasco involving Michael Waltrip Racing and the great jet fuel controversy.

And although things did get better as the year went along, overall there's much room for improvement in 2008.

Dave Blaney was the highest-finishing Camry driver, bringing the Bill Davis Racing Caterpillar entry home 31st. The other six entries failed to crack the Top 35.

There were a few bright spots along the way.

Blaney and Waltrip both won poles and there were two top five finishes with Blaney finishing third at Talladega in October and Brian Vickers coming home fifth at Lowe's Motor Speedway in May. Toyota drivers also scored 11 top-10 finishes.

"I would probably give our first season a letter grade of a B-minus," said Jim Aust, vice president of motorsports, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. "We're probably about 14 races behind where I thought we would be. We expected to run in the top 15 by midseason, and we moved in on that at the end of the season. Overall, the consistency picked up, but we still have plenty of work to do in order to compete with the Hendrick, Childress and Roush teams."

Helping Toyota catch-up will be Joe Gibbs Racing, which will switch from Chevrolet to field three Camrys for Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and newcomer Kyle Busch, who comes over from Hendrick Motorsports.

JGR's satellite team, the former Hall-of-Fame Racing operation, will also make the move to Toyota with J.J. Yeley piloting the No. 96 entry.

Those aditions have Toyota officials feeling optimistic about improving their fortunes in 2008.

"I think our teams are setting themselves up for success next season," Aust said. "I don't think there is any question that we will get some wins next year, and hopefully the first will come at Daytona. When we looked at our program, we thought that by year three we would be in contention for a championship - and that was before the addition of Joe Gibbs Racing. That's going to be moved ahead by a year now with the addition of that team."

Existing teams like Waltrip's believe they will also benefit by the addition of a powerhouse like JGR to Toyota.

"There have been meetings on projects we can share with JGR and things we can do to help the learning curve," Waltrip said. "We have a lot of respect for that organization, they've been around a long time and been in contention for and won championships. We really look forward to being able to work with them on projects as we head into 2008."

Aust feels that the strength of the program will be greatly improved in 2008 with the expansion of Toyota's reach to now include the Gibbs operation.

"One of the philosophies that we have tried to embrace - dating back to the start of our NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series program in 2004 - is to get all the teams to work together as best as possible," Aust said. "You're much stronger by sharing information and working as one, as opposed to working as individual organizations. It's not easy because everyone is a competitor. The Gibbs organization has come on board with the outlook that they are willing to share information and work with the other teams.

"As we see that unfold throughout the year, I think we'll see our entire group become stronger. If we can accomplish that, I think we'll have a very successful 2008."

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