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Great expectations

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CONCORD, N.C. – Oh what a feeling, Toyota.

That old advertising slogan also can describe the technical and image struggles the car company and the captain of its Nextel Cup aspirations, Lee White, are facing in their efforts to put the much-touted Camry on the starting grid for next February's Daytona 500.

Since Toyota announced it was going Cup racing in 2007, the perception has been that the Japanese car company would come in with unlimited cash and immediately dominate.

But that couldn't be further from the truth, according to White, senior vice president/general manager of Toyota Racing Development.

"We can tell people until we're blue in the face and it just won't matter," White said Friday at Lower's Motor Speedway. "The reality of it is that [sponsors] like Caterpillar, NAPA, Burger King, UPS, Dominos and Red Bull are all making huge investments that make ours pale by comparison from an actual cash to the team level."

The perception that Toyota, a foreign manufacturer that currently is enjoying success in the Craftsman Truck Series, is simply jumping into Cup competition with a big wad of money has left some in the NASCAR world feeling a bit uneasy.

"Sure, of course there's a resentment and everything else, but you just get over it and get on with it," White said. "We're going to work as hard as we can work and our teams are going to work as hard as they can work, and quite honestly, the actions on the race track are going to be what really counts."

Listening to White, you get a sense that he's very sincere about the numerous struggles the company has endured to crack NASCAR's exclusive Cup club. Foremost have been major chassis supply issues for the seven teams slated to carry the Toyota badging next season.

With one of the main chassis builders in the business able to deliver just one ready-to-go race car per month – not nearly enough for each of the seven Toyota teams that need at least 15 regular cars and an additional six to eight Cars of Tomorrow each – TRD has been forced to step in and help produce chassis as well.

Another significant problem has been production and availability of parts for race motors, forcing the company to turn to alternate suppliers, including a Canadian firm noted more for its success in Formula One Racing.

All that being said, Toyota's route has been similar to the nearly two years of planning and preparation Dodge went through to make its return to the Cup level, as both had significant obstacles that had to be overcome.

Toyota learned quite a few lessons from Dodge's entry and has tried to avoid making some of the same mistakes. In fact, Pat Wall, who helped engineer Dodge's return, is White's right-hand man in bringing Toyota to Cup.

"You'd be surprised how many times I've reminded my people that when Dodge came in, they couldn't even keep water in a [engine] block in January," White said. "Their own castings were junk and they had to go to Caterpillar to fix the problem for them. We don't have that problem. We've got great motors."

When Dodge did make its return to Cup in the 2001 Daytona 500, it set the standard for Toyota to follow by putting Bill Elliott on the pole and having three Dodges finish in the top 10 in that race.

Incidentally, Elliott tried to qualify for this weekend's Bank of America 500 here at Lowe's in a Dodge for the Red Bull team, which will campaign Toyotas next year, but failed to make the field.

"Obviously it is a big disappointment for the team," Red Bull team general manager Marty Gaunt said. "We had lots of enthusiasm going into the weekend, and that's what you need to have when you are building a new team. But minor setbacks like this help us build character as a new team."

Red Bull plans to try to qualify for two additional races this season.

Back in 2001, Dodge's performance established that a manufacturer can come into the sport and make a quick impact, but that isn't necessarily what will happen with Toyota.

"Don't tell me that the opportunity may not be there," White says firmly. "On the other hand, I'm not going to get my personal expectations so high that I'm going to walk around all down in the mouth if we don't make it because this is a very, very tough environment and no one is going to cut us any slack.

"Don't think that NASCAR is going to give us the call. That's not going to happen. Trust me, they won't give us anything. We won't have any advantage over anyone else. But we will have nothing to complain about in terms of at least being on an equal basis with everyone else. It's up to our teams and our drivers."

Overseeing Toyota's efforts from its birth to first steps has been satisfying for White, who has over 30 years of motorsports management experience.

"Personally, I'm pretty pleased with where we are right now," said White, whose TRD program and the Toyota teams combine to employ roughly 750 people. "Each of our shops [has] a countdown clock [with] days, hours and minutes to the green flag at Daytona. There isn't a person in the program that doesn't realize the challenge [they're] up against."

But those challenges have also been lessons for Toyota, which now is producing measurable results. The worst, it seems, is behind them.

"What we've tried to bring to the party is coordination of this panic, so to speak, so that there's some kind of coordinated and organized deliverable at the end," White said. "You go in a shop and there's rows of cars lined up with people working on them – you give somebody something to work on and pound on every day, suddenly he's not panicking any more. It's a whole different scenario."

But again, producing results isn't simply accomplished by pouring tons of money into the program, as many believe Toyota is doing.

"It's not just about writing people big checks," White said. "We could write these people the biggest checks in the world, but if they can't get chassis and build cars, it wouldn't make a bit of difference.

"That's not what this program is about, from a Toyota perspective. That perception that's out there is completely false."

Toyota may not sit on the pole at Daytona next February and may not have three or more finishers in the top 10. White wishes he could will it, but he's also a realist. When asked his expectations for how the overall program will do in its rookie year, White demurred.

"I think 'hope' is a better word than 'expectation,' expecting to do something when it's so new," said White, who believes Toyota's teams could compete for top-10 finishes by midseason. "It's a long step, a big jump from the Trucks garage to the Cup garage. We all know that and understand that. But I think I'm prepared to say that hope-wise, that I would hope the methodology and the way we've developed of doing business in the Cup garage would translate."