As the circuit heads to California this week, Toyota Camrys are still searching for the first Cup win at their "hometown" track. With their U.S. Sales and Marketing headquarters located in nearby Torrance, it's an important weekend to showcase how far the brand has come in just two plus years on the NASCAR circuit -- and how far it still has to go.
When Toyota announced its entrance into the Sprint Cup level in 2006, a divided fan base scoffed at the notion of a foreign manufacturer. With the company overwhelming both Ford and GM in the sales market, many assumed it was simply a matter of time before Toyota made NASCAR its playground, using both monetary and engineering advantages to gain an edge over its American rivals.
But fears of outright dominance have fizzled into an uncomfortable position for the top-selling automaker: playing second fiddle. Instead, it's Chevrolet popping the champagne corks this year after winning its seventh consecutive manufacturers' title (and 33rd overall). A quick look at the points also shows the Bowtie Brigade's superiority, occupying first through fourth in the standings with half the Chase field running Impalas. Toyota places a distant second in virtually every category, with just one driver (
In fact, GM's sudden boost in the wake of filing for bankruptcy is one of the under-reported stories this year. Through 29 races, it has doubled its win total from '08 (from 7 to 15) despite having to slash as much as $10 million in funding from teams like Richard Childress Racing.
"It's no secret these are stressful and turbulent times at General Motors," say GM Racing Manager
Where is Toyota falling short? The answer may be as simple as personnel. Of the dozen drivers running Camrys on the Sprint Cup level, they have zero championships and two Daytona 500 victories (both achieved by
In the meantime, Joe Gibbs Racing still builds its own engines, a departure from the company's strict information-sharing philosophy that tries to put everyone on the same page. Yet for the money behind the TRD powerplants, they didn't stop
Meanwhile, GM's budding renaissance results in one of the more positive messages the sport's sending this year, as CEO
And as for Toyota's future? There's certainly potential for success amidst the growing pains. But it's notable that a manufacturer that many believed would destroy parity has instead left fans with nothing to worry about.
• NASCAR's decision to move to universal start times in 2010 also came with a rare admission of guilt by one of the sport's broadcasters. FOX Sports Chairman
"I think that we've started to tamper with something that we shouldn't have," he said of race times that have run anywhere from 2 to 8 Eastern in recent years. "And I'll put my hand up and say guilty. What we've found, and our research and NASCAR's research is that the great thing about this sport is it's wonderful, wonderful traditions."
"We realize [now] that it wasn't doing us any good whatsoever with that core fan that created this sport and turned it from a regional sport into a major national sport."
It's quite a turn of events for NASCAR, which has gone from trying to expand to simply asking its base audience to stick with it. The move has been mostly well-received throughout the garage, but comes with trepidation amidst continuing competition issues with the new car. Remember, it doesn't matter what time the races run if the product isn't worth watching ...
Perhaps the most interesting tidbit behind the move is Brian France's admission that a NASCAR Fan Council was used for the research. Up to 25,000 hardcore fans since its debut last year, the council is becoming an important sway vote within a normally conservative sanctioning body. I went to nascarfancouncil.com and tried to register, but they aren't accepting any new members. If you're on the council, please mailbag me ... SI would love to hear from you.
• Cup teams are still discussing bringing all their team and licensing rights under one banner controlled by the sport: NASCAR Properties. But do they really want to give up control in the wake of Motorsports Authentics' pending bankruptcy? In 2005, the sport bought the controlling interest in Action Performance when the company was still viable. Four years later, it's dropped from a peak of 400 million dollars in revenue to just 125, employing half the staff while edging towards financial ruin. Others in the garage fear such a partnership would be a first step towards the "F" word: franchising agreements for teams in order to be a part of NASCAR's 43-car field.
If you're curious, the top 5 motorsports twitter accounts are listed below. Be careful to navigate through the spam as you check them out (only spam driver I didn't see:
NASCAR Twitter Accounts Over 10,000 followers:
27,260 -- Juan Pablo Montoya (jpmontoya)