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LARS ANDERSON
February 19, 2007
Toyota hopes to shoot to the front in its Cup debut, but in racing that new-car smell isn't always sweet
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February 19, 2007

Start 'em Up

Toyota hopes to shoot to the front in its Cup debut, but in racing that new-car smell isn't always sweet

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ON SUNDAY, Japanese automaker Toyota will become the first foreign manufacturer to back a team on NASCAR's premier circuit. So how is the world's most successful automaker being greeted? "We're going to go to war with them," says Roush Racing owner Jack Roush, whose Ford-backed team is the largest in NASCAR. "They should give us their best shot, because we'll be giving as good as we take."

Roush, like other established owners, is concerned about how Toyota's deep pockets will affect the competitive balance on the Nextel Cup circuit. The Toyota-backed teams have already flexed their wallets. Last May, Michael Waltrip, who owns one of the three Toyota teams that will debut this season, signed former Cup champion Dale Jarrett to reportedly the most lucrative driver deal in NASCAR history. A month later Team Red Bull, another Toyota-backed operation, lured Brian Vickers from Hendrick Motorsports by giving him a hefty multiyear contract even though Vickers had yet to win in 93 Cup starts. Said owner Rick Hendrick, who brought Vickers into Cup racing in 2003, "Maybe Brian just wants to go somewhere and be a top draft pick for somebody."

For Toyota, which has run a successful NASCAR Truck Series program for three seasons, the motivation to go Cup racing is clear: to gain exposure for its auto and truck lines among highly desirable consumers. No matter how big the investment, though, competitive success is never a sure thing. "We can't guarantee a sponsor we're going to be in the Chase [this year]," says Jarrett, "but that opportunity is there." Well, maybe. The last time a manufacturer joined NASCAR was in 2001, when Dodge returned to the Cup series after a 24-year absence. Dodge's first season back was a resounding success: six poles and four victories. But the sport has become more specialized and technical in the past six years, and few in the Cup garage expect Toyota to make a splash this season--including Roush. "I expect to hand Toyota its head over the short term," he says. "Then it's just a matter of what happens in the long term."

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