Strong speed numbers at Daytona testing good news for Toyota

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Lee White was minding his own business in the garage at Daytona International Speedway last week when a couple of wisecracking reporters walked up rubbing and shaking their fingers as if something were on them.

They were pretending to have gotten goop off an engine from a nearby Toyota, mocking the experience a NASCAR inspector had last year when a still unspecified substance was found in the engine of Michael Waltrip's Camry before qualifying for the Daytona 500.

"My boss still doesn't think that is funny," White said.

He said this with a smile. Not because he thought it was funny, but because that drama is well back in his rearview mirror and because Toyotas were flexing newfound muscles in the first session of testing at Daytona.

The vice president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development had even more to smile about this week as Toyotas dominated the speed charts.

Dale Jarrett was fastest on Monday, with six Toyotas in the top eight. On Tuesday morning, Michael Waltrip, Brian Vickers and Jarrett ranked second through fourth, and two other Toyotas were in the top 10.

Denny Hamlin was second in Wednesday's final practice, with teammate Tony Stewart eighth, Waltrip ninth and Dave Blaney 11th.

White was so happy that he didn't rule out a victory in next month's 50th running of the Daytona 500.

"I'm optimistic that we have a shot to compete for the pole, win one or both of the 150s and have a couple of guys contend to win the race," he said. "That's why we're here, to contend, to compete and have a shot. We'll see how it turns out. There's some really strong competition. There are good teams here. It's going to be fun."

Last year wasn't fun -- at least not the start of it. White & Co. spent the first few months in damage-control mode as NASCAR's investigation into what was found in Waltrip's engine lingered.

There were small victories, such as Blaney winning the pole at the first New Hampshire race and finishing ninth at Indianapolis, and Vickers finishing fifth in the 12th race at Charlotte and having consecutive eighth-place finishes at Michigan and Fontana.

But the biggest news out of the Toyota camp was the September announcement that Joe Gibbs Racing would leave General Motors after the 2007 season to join the foreign manufacturer.

That meant Toyota would get three top drivers in Stewart, Hamlin and Kyle Busch, as well as the technology that has helped JGR win three Cup titles in the 2000s.

"It's really the whole package when you talk about Gibbs," White said. "But most about Gibbs has been their ability and willingness to embrace our view of how this thing needs to work to get yourself to the top and compete with Hendrick [Motorsports]."

HMS won half of the 36 races last season, with Jimmie Johnson capturing 10 and a second consecutive championship. White won't be happy until he has Toyota on a level playing field -- and not just with Hendrick and Chevrolet.

"I was talking to Jack Roush a couple of weeks ago," he said of the co-owner of Ford's Roush Fenway Racing. "I fully expect about three of his guys [to make the Chase], although he told me he intends to have five of them in.

"My answer to that was I intend to make sure it's really difficult for him."

The addition of JGR will make that possible. White said there's already more sharing among Toyota teams than a year ago when the organizations of Michael Waltrip Racing, Bill Davis Racing and Team Red Bull were fighting to get into the top 35 in points.

I'm optimistic that we have a shot to compete for the pole, win one or both of the 150s and have a couple of guys contend to win the race. That's why we're here, to contend, to compete and have a shot.

-- Toyota's Lee White

"I would admit we've been pretty unsuccessful for a year to get the teams to share in projects," he said. "That made it very challenging to do what we like to do, which is have everybody pulling on the same end of the rope instead of pushing it from 2,500 miles away."

The best example of how that has changed could be seen as Ronnie Crooks went from one Camry to the next during testing. Considered one of the best shock specialists in the business, Crooks was offered by JGR president J.D. Gibbs to help all Toyota teams.

"When you talk about the bump coming off of [Turn] 4, there's a guy that can help you get across it," White said. "That alone can help explain why they're all in a bunch [atop the speed charts]."

Waltrip said Crooks has been a major asset for his team. He said JGR's experience overall makes him optimistic about the upcoming season.

"They're going to be in better shape to win races than us right off the bat, but we think we can learn so much from them that it just accelerated the opportunity for us to be successful by 100 percent," said Waltrip, who last year finished 43rd in points and made only 14 races.

"There's strength in numbers. We've got three really strong cars that we add to the lineup, and I think you'll see with the support of Toyota being refined and with Gibbs being here, we'll be up to speed quicker than what you might think."

Stewart likes what he's seen thus far.

"It makes you feel good when you make a big change like what our organization has gone through this winter, and to come to the first test of the first race of the year and see so many Toyotas on top of the chart like that it's obviously a big plus for us," the two-time Cup champion said.

No wonder White was smiling. He was in such a good mood one has to wonder if there is more in his hand of manufacturer poker than he's showing.

Asked about the dyno numbers NASCAR recently released to the teams, he said, "I've seen [them] and don't want to comment on it, but no one's frowning.

"I think it's safe to say we're pleased with what we've seen in both test sessions here at Daytona," White added. "There have been big changes from what we saw at this test a year ago to what we've seen this time, and those changes are a credit to a lot of months of hard work.

"Overall we've learned a lot at both sessions and we're looking forward to returning for the 50th running of the Daytona 500."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.