FONTANA, Calif. – One has to wonder if Kyle Busch feels like a victim of bait and switch.
Forced out at Hendrick Motorsports after team owner Rick Hendrick landed Dale Earnhardt Jr., Busch found a new home for 2008 at Joe Gibbs Racing – a team arguably as strong as the Hendrick organization.
Of course, this all went down before it was confirmed – essentially by Busch here on Friday, days ahead of next Wednesday's planned announcement – that Gibbs would leave Chevrolet and join Toyota for the 2008 season.
Chevy is widely considered the strongest manufacturer in the sport, while Toyota largely has struggled in its first season of Cup racing. So instead of going from one championship-winning organization to another, Busch leaves the sport's dominant team and manufacturer and heads to a program still trying to find its footing in its first year of Cup racing.
Not that Busch is worried.
"I feel fine with it," he said.
Busch's move to Gibbs from Hendrick's No. 5 Chevy – which is a near-lock to make the Chase heading into Sunday's race here at California Speedway – was announced before Gibbs' Toyota deal was done, though word of the move has been bouncing around the garage for much of the season and has been reported here by Yahoo! Sports' Bob Margolis. And Busch says that while the Toyota deal wasn't complete when he signed on with Gibbs, the team did tell him the move was a possibility before he signed, and kept its drivers – including Busch – apprised of its progress before eventually confirming that the move was going to happen.
"We had talks about it," Busch said. "I knew it might be coming. I'm pretty much OK with it."
But should he be?
Chevrolet has tallied 17 wins in 24 races this season – with one coming from Busch himself – and currently has nine drivers in the top 12. Included in that group are two of Busch's current Hendrick teammates (Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson) and two of his future teammates (Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin).
Hendrick Motorsports has 10 wins while Gibbs has notched four for Chevrolet. The top-ranked Toyota driver, meanwhile, is Dave Blaney, who sits 33rd in points and has just two top-10s this season.
And while Toyota has had some notable runs and has shown some improvement in recent weeks, it probably is fair to expect some drop-off in performance in 2008 – at least as far as the Gibbs program is concerned.
"I don't think there's really going to be too much of a difference," said Hamlin, who wouldn't confirm that Gibbs' move to Toyota was done (Stewart only would tell various media outlets that he would be at next week's press conference). "I've never been with a team that's been with a new manufacturer (after the first year), so I don't know what the growing pains are, if there are any. But I'm sure there are going to be struggles.
"I don't think we're in it to be successful right now. (We're thinking about) who's going to be dominating years down the road."
That perspective, of course, comes from a Gibbs driver. And while the competition also sees the potential that Hamlin alludes to when he looks long-term, they also recognize the obstacles Gibbs could face early in its tenure with Toyota .
"You would think (there would be a drop-off in performance)," Johnson said. "I'm not saying (there will be), but any time you have a team (that strong) changing manufacturers, there's got to be some sort of learning process."
Gibbs, of course, might already be working on developing Toyota engines and chassis, which Johnson says would help speed up the process. Also playing a role in Gibbs getting up to speed with Toyota is the Car of Tomorrow.
Johnson points out that the COT's purpose is "to make things more equal," and because teams don't have as much room to work with on the new car, it conceivably wouldn't be as difficult for Gibbs to make its Toyota COTs competitive as it might be with the current car, which will be obsolete next season.
"It should be a shorter learning process," Johnson said.
The manufacturer change is something Ryan Newman has experienced. Newman's Penske Racing team ran Fords when Newman took over the No. 12 car, but the team switched to Dodge heading into the 2003 season.
"It’s a big learning curve when you make a manufacturing switch," Newman said. "The people, cars, engines, power curves, a lot of things. You can’t rely on your book of tricks as much. You have to create a new plan. It takes some time. It all depends on how much you can test and how well you understand what you’re doing."
Newman won eight races that first season with Dodge, but he doesn't expect Gibbs' move to Toyota to be quite as smooth.
"It’ll be very difficult for them to be as competitive as they are now … to start the season – if they were to switch," Newman said.
Like Penske was five years ago, however, Gibbs already is an established program – one of the strongest in NASCAR, at that. And that status could make a significant difference in 2008.
Toyota's best team arguably has been Bill Davis Racing, which was the most experienced of the three organizations currently running Toyotas in Nextel Cup. The newer Michael Waltrip and Red Bull teams, meanwhile, have experienced more growing pains with Toyota than has Bill Davis' team.
"They've been the most competitive Toyotas out there mainly because they an established team that has experience working together and they do all their stuff in house," Jeff Gordon said. "They don't have it sent to them from a factory."
That translates directly to Gibbs' situation.
"They're doing their own engines," Gordon said. "They've got something very solid to work with."
Gordon, Newman, Johnson will be watching with interest, but from afar. Busch, on the other hand, will experience first-hand his new team's ability – or lack thereof – to compete quickly with Toyota.
And Busch isn't worried. He points to the manufacturer's history of winning in the series it enters, including CART and the IRL. He also points out Toyota's NASCAR success in the Craftsman Truck Series, where it struggled early before fielding a championship-winning team.
Busch, however, failed to mention the manufacturer's high-dollar struggles in Formula One, and Toyota's slow start in Nextel Cup also hasn't been lost on observers.
"I think they talk about the engineering and technology that Toyota can bring, yet they haven't seen the results so far this year," said Gordon, who thinks Gibbs could help Toyota achieve the results they seek. "But is that going to take Gibbs to the next level or hold them back? That is the real question."
Busch and Hamlin clearly are thinking about that next level. Busch believes Toyota's engine program already is solid, and that offseason R&D and "trying to make sure the right people" are in place will pay dividends quickly.
Even more so, Busch is confident that the Gibbs organization itself – and specifically its drivers – will help Toyota raise its game sooner than later.
"I don't foresee it being a development program," Busch said. "… I'm not scared."
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