Toyota didn't get into NASCAR to stay...they got into NASCAR to win.
The initial Toyota lineup of Michael Waltrip, Bill Davis Racing, and a new Red Bull team didn't look like serious competition for Chevrolet's powerhouses Hendrick, Joe Gibbs and DEI and Ford superteam Roush Racing.
Then Dale Jarrett, Winston Cup Champion, three-time Daytona 500 winner and winner of 32 Winston/Nextel Cup races, announced that he has signed on with Michael Waltrip Racing starting next year.
Despite being an aging talent, he brings the experience of those years to the Toyota group, perhaps more experience than all the other prospective Toyota Nextel Cup drivers combined.
Dale Jarrett also brings credibility to the program. He is still competitive. However, just because Toyota hasn't signed a currently winning driver or team doesn't mean that their group isn't familiar with Victory Lane.
Despite Michael Waltrip's recent lack of success, he has proven the ability to win when he gets good cars, and knowing Toyota, he will get them. Michael Waltrip suffered through Bahari Racing, Mattei Motorsports and a declining Wood Brothers, but wasted no time when he finally got a good car around him, winning his first race in a Dale Earnhardt, Inc. car.
Bill Davis Racing won the 2002 Daytona 500 with Ward Burton, but ran into hard times when their association with Toyota caused Dodge to pull their support from BDR. With factory support back on his side, Bill Davis is likely to get back to Victory Lane.
While Red Bull and sister team Toro Rosso suffer through their Formula 1 experience, remember that Formula 1 is a different type of racing altogether. For thier NASCAR team, Red Bull has the advantage of borrowing personnel from their Formula 1 programs. As an example of the effectiveness of F1 experience in NASCAR, look to Richard Childress Racing. Their new engine chief is from Cosworth's F1 engine shop. Their power is back, and so is Kevin Harvick, with a three year contract extension and numerous trips to Victory Lane.
There are always rumors floating around the garages and the internet, most of them centering around younger drivers, maybe because they are seen as being more open to driving a Japanese car. But with Toyota's multi-year association with Darrell Waltrip, one of NASCAR's "good ol' boys," and now the addition of Dale Jarrett, a long-time hero of Ford fans, one gets the feeling that just about anybody could be behind the wheel of a Camry come Daytona 2007.
This is something NASCAR has been through before. Recently, even, with the 2001 return of Dodge to the lineup. Toyota, however, brings about an emotional response from NASCAR fans for reasons that should be obvious by now.
This is going to be an interesting year...
©2006 Bill Crittenden