Race Weekend Central

Best of Toni Heffelfinger: Toyota Teams Really Hitting Their Stride in NASCAR

Editor’s Note: This column originally ran on May 5, 2006.

Toyota is in their fourth season in the Craftsman Truck Series, and it appears they are just hitting their stride. From day one, they have been treated with suspicion by many fans who feared they’d come in with boatloads of money and take over the series in their first season. Of course, it didn’t exactly happen that way. It may have taken Toyota four years, but it doesn’t matter to those same fans, who are still right there saying, “See? We told you so.” That bothers me.

Maybe the money they are willing to spend has something to do with Toyota’s success, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. You can throw all the money in the world at something that doesn’t work right, but unless you find the person who can fix it, it doesn’t matter. That’s the real key to success, good people, and that’s why it took this group four years to get it together. The Toyota teams have been tweaking and adjusting all along, forming a working relationship within their teams and with each other.

They now have the right combination, especially when it comes to the Germain team. Todd Bodine has been tearing up the track since he got there, but his teammate’s truck didn’t fare so well. Enter Ted Musgrave, and their picture is now complete. It’s looking like one of them will be the champion and the other will be the backup insurance policy to assure they get that championship, no matter what happens.

Perhaps money still does come into play, because that’s what it takes to hire a top-notch driver lineup like the one Toyota boasts. Or is it? Remember, this is the Craftsman Truck Series, not Cup. We’re not talking the same kind of salaries. Not only that, but it’s not always about money with drivers. Sometimes it’s simply about championships, and the opportunity presented to contend for them.

As for the manufacturers, I made an interesting observation recently. At the New York International Auto Show, Chevy and Ford didn’t have any sign of their NASCAR involvement anywhere. Dodge brought a simulator and a car, but instead of being on the main floor exhibit with their other cars, they were on the lower level with the trucks. I didn’t see any race trucks with it, although I can kind of understand the placement. The line for the simulator was long and the quarters upstairs were pretty tight and also crammed with people trying to get a look at the new Challenger, so the lower level exhibit was probably the best place for the NASCAR things.

Toyota, on the other hand, featured a large display with a truck, a car and a screen broadcasting truck race footage. Their exhibit was also on the lower level with the trucks, instead of with the cars, but that also makes sense because, for the moment, they only race trucks.

I don’t know if the size of the NASCAR exhibits at the car show really means anything about their enthusiasm for the sport, but it spoke to me at least. NASCAR is, at the root of it all, a tool for the manufacturers to sell cars. I felt like Chevy and Ford were kind of missing the boat. Of course, this was New York, and maybe they still don’t feel like NASCAR sells in the Big Apple.

One other note from the auto show. In spite of all the negative reactions from fans that feel Toyota is going to come in and take over, there sure were a lot of people crowded around the NASCAR Tundra and Camry that they brought to the show trying to get a good look. That, in itself, should tell you something.

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