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Staggered Start

NASCAR veteran Michael Waltrip has become the poster boy for Toyota's so-far abysmal debut season in Nextel Cup

WELL, AT LEAST they're not getting booed. This, tellingly, has been the crowning achievement of the seven Toyota teams—the first foreign-backed cars in Nextel Cup history—through the first eight races of their maiden season. "Maybe the fans feel sorry for us," said a half-smiling Michael Waltrip, who owns and drives for Michael Waltrip Racing, last Saturday afternoon in the garage at Phoenix International Raceway. "The support has been great, but honestly the start of the season could not have gone any worse. Building a race team from scratch has proved to be much more difficult than we expected."

Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 champion, has become the face of Toyota's struggles. At the season-opening Daytona 500 he was tarred in a cheating scandal that prompted NASCAR to dock his number 55 team 100 points, and since finishing 30th in the Great American Race, he has failed to qualify for seven straight events. Away from the track Waltrip's year has been equally disastrous. Early on the morning of April 7 he lost control of his Toyota Land Cruiser near his home in Huntersville, N.C., struck a utility pole, flipped, then left the scene. (Waltrip was charged with reckless driving and failure to report an accident. He has a May 14 court date.)

"Michael's problems have been puzzling and troublesome to all of us," says Jim Aust, the president of Toyota Racing Development. "But we're in this for the long haul, and we're hoping to be partners with Michael for a long, long time. We have a proven history of success in racing, and we're going to turn this thing around."

Indeed, though a Toyota has cracked the top 20 only three times this season and the Camrys collectively have failed to qualify for races 26 times, there is a belief among all the Toyota teams that they're close to competing for a win—possibly as soon as the Coca-Cola 600 on May 27 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte. For the past six weeks a half-dozen engineers and fabricators from Toyota have worked with members of Michael Waltrip Racing to build a new car, for all the Toyota teams, that can be used at intermediate-length tracks such as Lowe's. Toyota has also assigned 12 engine specialists at its U.S. headquarters in Costa Mesa, Calif., to work full time on its stock car engines in the hope of finding more horsepower, which has always been a hallmark of Toyota Racing. Everyone in the Cup garage is watching closely because ever since Toyota's entrance into the Cup series was announced in January 2006, rival owners have worried that they wouldn't be able to match the resources that Toyota—the world's top-selling carmaker—would commit to its teams. Those owners should find out if their fears are warranted at Charlotte, where Toyota hopes to unveil its new car and improved engine.

"Toyota has money, but they just don't have good race teams," says one high-ranking member of a title-contending organization. "When they came into the series, all the good teams—Hendrick Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing, Gibbs Racing, Penske, etc.—were already committed to manufacturers, so Toyota had to pick from the bottom of the barrel. Look at the three Toyota teams: Waltrip's is a start-up, [Team] Red Bull is a start-up, and Bill Davis Racing has never done anything of note. In the long run, equipment won't be Toyota's problem—the people will."

ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis every Tuesday and Friday.

Short Laps

1 Jeff Gordon tied Dale Earnhardt for sixth on the career wins list (with 76) by taking his first checkered flag of the season, at Phoenix (above). Gordon's key move was, fittingly, cribbed from the Intimidator's playbook: With 13 laps remaining, he banged into the backside of Tony Stewart's Chevy, causing Stewart to slide up the track as Gordon made the pass. Said Gordon, "Bumping and banging, that's the way I wanted to get number 76."

2 In Phoenix the Car of Tomorrow was on the track for the third time, and the reviews from the drivers were nearly unanimous: The CoT is getting easier to drive, but the handling in the corners is still treacherous. The drivers had better get used to the new ride, however, because NASCAR is satisfied with the quality of racing it's seen with the CoT. NASCAR is virtually certain to fast-forward its timetable and mandate the CoT for all races starting in '08.



FACING FAILURE Like (from top) Waltrip's Napa team, Toyota entries Jeremy Mayfield, Brian Vickers and Dave Blaney have yet to click.



[See caption above]