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 (Denny Hamlin) in realistic position to contend for a title with seven races left.
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 Mark Dyer. "To be able to celebrate the success of a goal met is a reward well-deserved, and ranks as one of the most special in the racing history of GM and Chevrolet."
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 Michael Waltrip long before Toyota drove around in circles). Since losing Tony Stewart to his own team this season, the company's brought up a young rookie in Joey Logano to replace him but failed to add more star power to its lineup. Rumored deals with Penske Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports never came to fruition, with RPM announcing a move to rival Ford in September.
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 Brian Vickers from having a failure Sunday that effectively took him out of Chase contention. Add in Busch's confusing season (running away with the Nationwide Series title but struggling to finish in the top 10 in Cup), a pending loss of the Truck Series championship to Ron Hornaday (also driving a Chevy), and you've got a long list of improvements to make.
Meanwhile, GM's budding renaissance results in one of the more positive messages the sport's sending this year, as CEO Brian France is looking to add new manufacturers as early as 2011. Heck, if a company facing bankruptcy can still wind up on top, it's a good sign that a company like Honda, Nissan or BMW could enter the sport and compete with less money than they might have thought. Such a move would be welcomed by a sport looking for any injection of funding/competition it can get.
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 David Hill made no bones of the fact he felt late afternoon start times would be perfect lead-ins for prime-time programming; instead, it's proved to be one of several reasons fans are disgruntled with the current state of the sport.
"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.
• Juan Pablo Montoya is still lagging behind his rivals in popularity and merchandising sales, but has suddenly found a new way to battle back: social media. With over 27,000 followers, his Twitter account is the most popular of all NASCAR drivers on the circuit. The account is known more for its off-track tidbits than on-track account of races. Among the recent posts: pictures and commentary on Montoya's budding collection of model planes.
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: David Stremme. Man, do you know it's not your year when someone doesn't even try and make a fake page for you!) Amongst the madness, though, was one spammer in particular I couldn't help but laugh at: RobotKenseth. Check it out! And if you want to follow me, my account is NASCARBowles.
NASCAR Twitter Accounts Over 10,000 followers:
27,260 -- Juan Pablo Montoya (jpmontoya)17,165 -- Kyle Petty (kylepetty)17,025 -- Kevin Harvick (KevinHarvick)16,838 -- Michael Waltrip (mw55)15,621 -- Tony Stewart (14tonystewart)13,858 -- Kenny Wallace (Kenny_Wallace)