ON SUNDAY,Japanese automaker Toyota will become the first foreign manufacturer to back ateam on NASCAR's premier circuit. So how is the world's most successfulautomaker being greeted? "We're going to go to war with them," saysRoush 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 wetake."
Roush, like otherestablished owners, is concerned about how Toyota's deep pockets will affectthe competitive balance on the Nextel Cup circuit. The Toyota-backed teams havealready flexed their wallets. Last May, Michael Waltrip, who owns one of thethree Toyota teams that will debut this season, signed former Cup champion DaleJarrett to reportedly the most lucrative driver deal in NASCAR history. A monthlater Team Red Bull, another Toyota-backed operation, lured Brian Vickers fromHendrick Motorsports by giving him a hefty multiyear contract even thoughVickers had yet to win in 93 Cup starts. Said owner Rick Hendrick, who broughtVickers into Cup racing in 2003, "Maybe Brian just wants to go somewhereand be a top draft pick for somebody."
For Toyota, whichhas run a successful NASCAR Truck Series program for three seasons, themotivation to go Cup racing is clear: to gain exposure for its auto and trucklines among highly desirable consumers. No matter how big the investment,though, competitive success is never a sure thing. "We can't guarantee asponsor we're going to be in the Chase [this year]," says Jarrett, "butthat opportunity is there." Well, maybe. The last time a manufacturerjoined NASCAR was in 2001, when Dodge returned to the Cup series after a24-year absence. Dodge's first season back was a resounding success: six polesand four victories. But the sport has become more specialized and technical inthe past six years, and few in the Cup garage expect Toyota to make a splashthis season--including Roush. "I expect to hand Toyota its head over theshort term," he says. "Then it's just a matter of what happens in thelong term."
NEW PLAYER A power in other motorsports, Toyota is revved up for the Nextel Cup series.