Joe Gibbs Racing gives Toyota much-needed power boost

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart was growing tired of being asked if he could tell the difference between a Toyota and the General Motors cars he's been driving since 1999 for Joe Gibbs Racing.

He finally told a member of the media that if the writer could tell the difference, then he should be in the car instead of Stewart.

Teammate Denny Hamlin agreed.

"Handling-wise, it's no different," he said. "From inside the car, no difference. Power-wise, I can definitely tell a difference when it comes to power between the Toyotas and Chevys.

"We didn't have the best engine program last year. I was probably the most vocal that we needed more power. When I went to the Toyota engine I felt like this is way better than what I had before."

In other words, beware of Toyotas.

A year after its debut in the Sprint Cup series, the Japanese manufacturer is set to become the threat that many initially predicted. The addition of Joe Gibbs Racing to a lineup of Michael Waltrip Racing, Bill Davis Racing, Team Red Bull and Hall of Fame Racing is a major reason.

JGR has won three titles over the past eight seasons -- Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Stewart in 2002 and 2005 -- and offers instant credibility to a manufacturer that desperately needed it.

"This is not the same as last year," said Lee White, the senior vice president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development. "It's completely different.

"We have a year under our belts. The teams we're associated with have a year under their belts and we have added the Joe Gibbs operation, which has completely changed our outlook as a company."

Without JGR and Hall of Fame, a Gibbs satellite team, Toyota would have only Dave Blaney of Bill Davis Racing locked into the top 35 in points. With Gibbs and HOF, Toyota has three drivers -- Stewart, Hamlin and Kyle Busch -- who finished in the top 12 in points a year ago.

They also have J.J. Yeley, who went to HOF after Busch moved from Hendrick Motorsports to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the top 35.

The presence of JGR also has improved communication between Toyota teams. Rodney Crooks, a shock specialists with JGR, now is working with all the teams to improve their programs.

"With Joe Gibbs Racing coming in and using Toyota, that has heightened Toyota right up," Waltrip said. "JGR had cars to put on the dyno and get into the wind tunnel. They just won races and just competed for a championship, and that's what our cars have to be like.

"That has really helped us."

Toyotas consistently were atop the speed charts during preseason tests at Daytona, Las Vegas and California. White is so optimistic that he wouldn't be surprised if a Toyota driver won the 50th running of the Daytona 500.

"That's why we're here -- to contend, to compete and have a shot," he said. "We'll see how it turns out. There's some really strong competition. There are good teams here. It's going to be fun."

Joe Gibbs Racing
Many questioned why JGR moved from a known and dominant product in Chevrolet to a relatively unknown product in Toyota.

The answer was simple: A chance to be No. 1.

As long as JGR remained with Chevrolet it would be no better than co-No. 1 with Hendrick Motorsports. At Toyota, the company begun by former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs in 1992 automatically goes to the head of the class.

And forget the unknown talk. JGR didn't move to Toyota to experience growing pains. The organization expects to compete for race wins and a championship immediately, combining its expertise in NASCAR with TRD's expertise in engine development.

"Together, they are going to figure out the problems," Hamlin said. "Next, it's going to be the other teams catching up to us there and we'll work on something else. TRD will work on it until they get it right. There are just too many people involved to not get it right."

The addition of Busch gives JGR three drivers with a legitimate chance to win the title even with a manufacturer change.

"We're not reinventing the wheel here," Stewart said. "We're just driving a different car. I've driven 22 different types of cars. Every one I got into the first time I've had to learn what it likes and dislikes. It's no different with this one.

"It's the same thing we went through half the season last year [with the COT]. It's not a big monumental change this year. I think last year was a bigger change than this year's going to be."

Outlook: The biggest challenge at JGR won't be adapting to Toyota. It will be meshing the strong wills and personalities of Stewart, Hamlin and Busch. All three should make the Chase and have a legitimate shot at the title. Busch may be the hungriest, ready to prove that HMS made a mistake when it ditched him in favor of Earnhardt.

Michael Waltrip Racing
The 2007 season couldn't have been more of an embarrassment for Waltrip. NASCAR discovered a foreign substance in his engine before the first race, resulting in the indefinite suspension of his crew chief and competition director. He went 11 consecutive races without making the field and made only 14 of the 36 races overall.

And he was charged with reckless driving and leaving the scene of an accident.

"It was a hard year and a lot of things contributed to the difficulty of it, but mainly there is just so much invested in the team, both financially and emotionally," said Waltrip, who qualified No. 2 for the 2008 Daytona 500. "And to see it almost crumble and all go bad in a hurry was difficult."

Waltrip admitted expectations may have been too high a year ago, considering he hadn't even moved into his new shop when the team arrived at Daytona.

With a year under his belt, with the addition of engineering and technical support and the arrival of JGR into Toyota, he's optimistic 2008 will be different.

That's not to suggest it will be a bed of roses. All three of Waltrip's cars, driven initially by him, Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann, must race into the top 35. Jarrett is leaving for the broadcast booth after five races, turning over the No. 44 UPS car to Reutimann.

Reutimann will be replaced by rookie Michael McDowell, who was in ARCA last season.

Stay tuned.

Outlook: Reutimann surprisingly was MWR's strongest driver last season, making 26 races and finishing 39th in points. He should have a legitimate shot at making the top 35 this season. Waltrip seems re-energized, but outside of winning a pair of Daytona 500s at Dale Earnhardt Inc., he's done little as a driver. Look for Jarrett to be much better in the broadcast booth than he will be on the track for five races.

Team Red Bull
The addition of general manager Jay Frye from Ginn Racing gives this organization much-needed help from the NASCAR side.

Financially and personnel-wise, the pieces are in place. Talent-wise, Brian Vickers and A.J. Allmendinger have unlimited potential, although both struggled to make races a year ago and will have to race their way into the top 35 this season.

Vickers should make the biggest jump. He had five top-10s in 2007, with a fifth at Lowe's Motor Speedway in May the second-best finish among Toyota teams.

Outlook: Vickers definitely has the talent to make the top 20. He was good enough to drive for Hendrick Motorsports after all. Consistency will be the key. Allmendinger made nine of the last 13 races, quite an improvement since he missed the field eight straight times before that. He's still a year or so away.

Bill Davis Racing
Blaney was by far the most consistent Toyota driver a year ago. He made 33 races and had four top-10s, including a manufacturer's best third at Talladega in the fall. He finished 31st in points, guaranteeing he'll be in the first five races of 2008.

Much of his success can be traced to the stability of BDR, the only one of the Toyota teams to build its own engines a year ago. The added support from JGR should make this team even stronger this season.

Jacque Villeneuve replaces Jeremy Mayfield in the second car. The former CART champion is making the jump to NASCAR, having made two races a year ago, at Talladega and Phoenix.

Outlook: Blaney should benefit more than anybody from the improvements at Toyota, having already established himself as a driver who can stay in the top 35. Making the top 25, however, may be a reach. This will be a learning year for the Canadian driver.

Hall of Fame Racing
Tony Raines was good enough to keep HOF in the top 35 in points last year. The organization hopes J.J. Yeley is good enough to move it into the top 20.

Yeley moved to HOF from JGR, where he was 21st in points a year ago. Of his five career top-10s, three came last season. Raines had only one top-10, so there's plenty of room for improvement there.

Outlook: Heading into his third season, this might be the time for him to break out. But it will be difficult for him to improve on last season with a single-car operation.

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