Toyota's flagship high on teamwork

Joe Gibbs Racing brings knowledge to the table and readily shares it.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Published January 19, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH - Ronny Crooks flitted from garage bay to garage bay last week as race cars burst backward from their stalls and squealed away. A proverbial bee in Joe Gibbs Racing garb, the veteran shock specialist was busy pollinating fellow Toyota teams with something that was already helping them run at Daytona International Speedway better than ever before.

JGR takes its role as standard-bearer of Toyota's Sprint formerly Nextel Cup effort seriously. The three-car team of two-time series champion Tony Stewart, and fellow Chase for the Championship-qualifiers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, is a virtual lock to provide Toyota's first win at NASCAR's top level after the manufacturer's humbling debut last year. That was perhaps worth signing JGR alone, said Toyota Racing Development senior vice president Lee White.

But even better, JGR is taking a lead role in making all of Toyota's Cup teams better, by design or osmosis. Ace engine builder Mark Cronquist is assembling his own version of TRD's powerplant, applying his savvy to the manufacturer's technological might, and JGR is offering logistical help to Toyota's other four teams, two of which are in just their second Cup season.

"I would tell you categorically, that was (team president) J.D. Gibbs' idea," White said of using Crooks. "The whole structure of this company has been changed to reflect and complement the relationship with Gibbs. Their level of expertise is so much higher than us and so much higher than the teams we have because of their youth, that it basically jump-starts everything and it gives everything a direction."

Whereas JGR had to vie for the attention of Chevrolet with Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Inc., and Richard Childress teams, the three-time champion has almost become its own laboratory with Toyota.

"If you are in somewhat of a leadership role, that's a big benefit," Gibbs said.

The Japanese manufacturer, which won its first truck series title in 2006, is advancing an expensive "one team" philosophy that concerned rival manufacturers when it joined NASCAR in 2004. Three engineers were tasked to help Cronquist, and according to White, "we've had engineers planning and purchasing people, parts people, build support, basically situated in their shop." Fifteen TRD engineers worked on the restrictor-plate program alone last summer, resulting in a major performance spike at Talladega, where Dave Blaney finished third, Michael Waltrip earned the pole and several cars were competitive.

Gibbs, deflecting some of the credit for speedy Toyotas in last week's test, contends Cronquist did not begin working on a Toyota engine until January, though JGR announced its deal in September and Waltrip said late last season that the partnership was already reaping reward. Granted, Gibbs said, "we've won a lot of (meaningless) Daytona tests," but Toyota teams finally have hope of competing after missing 95 races last season and seeing its top driver (Blaney) finish 31st in points.

"We think we can learn so much from them that it just accelerated the opportunity for us to be successful by 100 percent," Waltrip said.

Though White said the level of cooperation demonstrates "the tip of the iceberg," he is not optimistic his Cup programs will consent to the full open-book relationship of Toyota's truck teams because "there is too much at stake." Toyota's model for helping teams may encourage some parity, however. Whereas Chevrolet worked with individual teams on certain projects and relied on their willingness to share, Gibbs said, his new manufacturer works "from Toyota out."

But Gibbs said even the ever-present Crooks was just offering advice on "going in a general direction."

"There's certain things within JGR that don't go beyond our door," Gibbs said. "That's the same no matter what manufacturer you're with. The key thing is making sure to everybody knows that."

But even the smallest of details have helped so far.

Brant James can be reached at brant@tampabay.com or(727) 893-8804.