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Mating dance

Toyota sets sights, and money, on Gibbs partnership

Posted: Friday June 1, 2007 12:28PM; Updated: Friday June 1, 2007 6:00PM
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Though already successful with Chevy, Joe Gibbs may find financial opportunity offered by Toyota too much to ignore next season.
Though already successful with Chevy, Joe Gibbs may find financial opportunity offered by Toyota too much to ignore next season.

Late in 1999, rumors circulated in CART's Champ Car Series that Chip Ganassi Racing was going to switch from using Honda engines to using Toyota. At the time, the reports seemed pure fantasy. Ganassi was on the way to winning his fourth straight championship; Toyota was winless in the same four years.

Toyota, though, was convinced that its primary obstacle to victory lane was based on the quality of its teams rather than the quality of its engines. Toyota offered Ganassi a package of $10 million in cash and free engines -- worth $5 million -- per season to supply his two entries.

Ganassi stunned everyone in CART by accepting the offer. His team, with Juan Pablo Montoya, delivered the first victory for Toyota in their sixth race together. For Toyota, it became money well spent.

Now Toyota is following the game plan in the Nextel Cup, as it plans to follow-up its rookie season by making a plan to join forces with Joe Gibbs Racing.

With no top teams available for 2007, Toyota entered Cup competition by making deals with NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series partner Bill Davis Racing and helping Michael Waltrip Racing go from a team that run 18 Cup races in five seasons to three full-time operations. Toyota also supplies Red Bull Racing, a start-up team.

Not surprisingly, Toyota has struggled. Brian Vickers' fifth-place run at Lowe's last week was an amazing accomplishment considering he did it for a team less than a year old and a new manufacturer. Toss in the fact that all the Toyota teams are in the go-or-go-home group in qualifying each race and had to develop both the standard and the Car of Tomorrow at the same time, and those meager, infrequent feel-good results look slightly better.

Toyota, of course, believes it should be doing better, and with a top team, it would be. Several sources tell SI.com that Toyota is going hard after Joe Gibbs Racing and that Gibbs is very interested.

Officially, the Gibbs team denies any contact with Toyota: "It's news to us," team spokesman Mike Arning said. Toyota, as a matter of policy, does not comment on contract negotiations.

The potential deal is a delicate subject for Gibbs and Toyota. Gibbs' contract with Chevrolet, which runs out at the end of the year, stipulates this is a non-negotiating period with other manufacturers. Is contact to determine interest negotiating? You'd have to read the fine print and then get a clarification from an arbitrator to determine that. But sources say there definitely has been communication between Toyota and Gibbs.


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