Toyota's debut a mixed bag

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Toyota's foray into the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series was part Navy SEAL training, part fraternity rush.

As in punishing and humiliating at the same time.

The teams sporting stock car's newest nameplate hauled controversy and poor finishes away from Daytona's Speedweeks on Monday. Michael Waltrip's team cheated. Dale Jarrett posted Toyota's best Daytona 500 finish, an unimpressive 22nd. Dave Blaney mistook pit road for a dragstrip and ended up causing one of the most boneheaded wrecks in the race's history.

And most, if not all, of the rival teams left Florida giggling at Toyota's misfortune.

Here's hoping the new kid in the garage gets to laugh louder soon.

Call me vindictive, but I longed for a Toyota win on Sunday. All the rivals' hypocritical griping about the company's hiring practices and overspending red-lined my rpms.

No man has changed NASCAR more for the worse in recent years than Jack Roush. His multi-team approach has driven all but a few of the one or two-car operations out of Nextel Cup. And the small teams that remain, with the exception of Penske Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc., are not competitive.

Roush changed the sport to the point where NASCAR instituted a rule limiting the number of cars one race shop can operate. Yet there was Roush last month, predicting a "war" with Toyota and moaning about how he had to take on a partner to remain competitive. Cue the string quartet, please.

The sad thing is plenty of NASCAR fans feel sorry for Roush. Or at least they agree with him about Toyota being the first sign of racing's apocalypse.

Most surely were looking for any excuse: Toyota is a Japanese company breaking into a sport that's main demographic remains white Americans from the South and Midwest. And a large percentage of those folks have a grandfather who fought the Japanese in World War II or an uncle who lost his job on the assembly line when Toyota, Honda and Nissan became popular with car buyers in this country. Long memories and all that.

Speedweeks at least offered perspective. Daytona was not the racing equivalent of Pearl Harbor, although Blaney made a kamikaze maneuver when he rocketed down pit road and slammed into Ken Schrader with 15 laps to go. Toyota will need time to become competitive in the Cup Series.

The new teams could use better driver talent, too. Waltrip is a caution waiting to happen and Jarrett became a has-been two seasons ago when he purposefully wrecked Kevin Harvick at the Bristol fall race, taking himself and Harvick out of Chase for the Nextel Cup contention. The only value the duo brings to Toyota is their established sponsors: NAPA for Waltrip, UPS for Jarrett.

The rivals, meanwhile, remain strong. Roush didn't lose any drivers to Toyota. Rick Hendrick, the other multi-team kingpin, had one defector, although he upgraded by hiring Casey Mears to take Brian Vickers' ride.

Both owners still operate mega-shops, and both had cars challenging for victory until the race's final lap. Odds are, a Roush or Hendrick driver will win the Cup points title this season for the fifth time in seven years.

Toyota's teams, meanwhile, will spend 2007 simply earning their racing stripes.

And hopefully earning a few laughs, too.

Reach Adam Van Brimmer at (404) 589-8424 or adam.vanbrimmer@morris.com.


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