Mark Zeske
Wednesday September 5th, 2007

No, that noise you just heard wasn't another Toyota engine blowing up. Nor was it Michael Waltrip kicking the bumper of his No. 55 Camry in frustration, failing to qualify for yet another Nextel Cup race because of a weak Toyota engine.

No, that noise was the balance of power in NASCAR shifting.

Oh, Hendrick Motorsports is still the lead dog, and is adding more teeth with the addition of Dale Earnhardt Jr. And despite Jack Roush's Chicken Little routine -- he's right, the sky is falling -- Roush Fenway Racing will be a powerhouse for years to come. Even Richard Childress Racing, which will ultimately suffer the loss of its cornerstone wireless sponsor, will still be a force to be reckoned with.

But starting in 2008, Joe Gibbs Racing will be the team to beat in Cup racing.

Gibbs' switch to Toyota is the shot heard around the world. The move is exactly what Roush was afraid of when he warned of the Japan car maker moving into NASCAR's highest level for the first time before the beginning of the '07 season. Roush was afraid that Toyota's spending habits would change the dynamics and economics of NASCAR. (To oversimplify things, the car maker has gained a reputation of paying its way to the top of every form of racing in which it has competed.)

Jack got a year reprieve. Toyota went with a lineup of mostly start-up teams this season, and the grouping produced little results. Waltrip, for example, has had a miserable season. So Toyota officials went for a bigger fish and landed Gibbs, who, perhaps, was tired of playing second fiddle to Hendrick at General Motors. More likely, however, Toyota's offer was just too strong -- a blend of cash and technical support that just couldn't be passed up. Or maybe Gibbs officials reasoned that if they passed it up, someone like Childress would snap it up.

What will Toyota get? Everything they want, including one of the top engine programs in the sport and star power galore. Gibbs already does more with its money than any other team in NASCAR. It could be scary what the team might produce with even deeper pockets.

One could make a case that Gibbs is already the top team in stock-car racing. It has won three of the seven Cup titles since '00, one more than the two each of Hendrick and Roush. And this season, Tony Stewart is second in the points standings and Denny Hamlin third.

For those not paying attention, the switch to Toyota is just the latest in a series of moves that will catapult Gibbs to juggernaut status.

Gibbs has already landed Kyle Busch for '08 as the driver of its third team. The talented but mercurial youngster is currently eighth in the standings and will compete in this year's Chase playoffs. He'll also bring more sponsorship money to the No. 18 car.

Busch and Hamlin give Gibbs the best youngsters of any NASCAR team, with both still likely to be competing for Cup titles 20 years from now. Add high-profile owner and NFL coach Joe Gibbs and Stewart -- arguably NASCAR's third biggest star, behind Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon -- and the Gibbs team will get its share of media attention.

And don't forget that Gibbs has a virtual fourth team, the No. 96 car of Hall of Fame Racing. That car, underfunded and with a decent-but-not great Tony Raines behind the wheel, has outperformed all of Toyota's much-hyped teams this season. Clearly, the team has benefited from its relationship with Gibbs, which provides engines and other support.

And '08 should be even better, with a switch to the deep pockets of Toyota and a new driver, J.J. Yeley, currently 20th in the Cup standings. Yeley lost his ride in the No. 18 for '08 when Busch signed with Gibbs. The move to HoF Racing keeps Yeley, who Gibbs has invested much time and money in, within the family.

The No. 96 team also will have new owners, after Jeff Moorad and Tom Garfinkel bought controlling interest in HoF Racing last week. While both are currently executives with the Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball, they have a long history of sports experience. Moorad made his mark as a super agent, representing the top stars of the NFL and MLB, while Garfinkel has 12 years of motorsports experience and worked previously as an executive vice president at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Sure, things can go wrong, and nothing snowballs into a major problem like the little things in racing. And changing manufacturers, even when the switch is well-funded, can be dicey. Stewart and Busch can implode at a moment's notice, and the two temperamental drivers might well mix like water and gasoline -- or rather, fire and gasoline.

But for now, both drivers are smiling. And if Stewart and Busch aren't complaining about the switch to Toyota, you know it's a good move, no matter how much noise that shift in power makes.

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