LAS VEGAS – Any notion that Toyota was just spewing the company line two weeks ago at Daytona when they said they'd not only be competitive, but win multiple Sprint Cup races in 2008 was put to rest Monday.
Denny Hamlin, driving a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, provided the proof when he clocked the fastest lap in the first test session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Teammate Kyle Busch was fastest in the afternoon session.
Sure, Busch did the same thing at Daytona. But what makes this effort so notable is that they did it on a 1.5-mile oval – the kind of track that comprises one-third of the Sprint Cup schedule.
"We definitely didn't think going into this year we would have growing pains about switching manufacturers," Hamlin said. "Had we had the old car where we really don't know the aero advantages, yeah, we definitely would have been a little bit more concerned. But we know we basically have the same body as we had last year. All we're dealing with is different horsepower."
In other words, with NASCAR strictly running the Car of Tomorrow this season, the transition Joe Gibbs Racing is making from Chevrolet to Toyota is really no different than what every other team in the garage is dealing with.
Monday, when the teams unloaded their cars at Las Vegas, it was the first time anyone had tested a CoT at a 1.5-mile track. On equal footing, the Toyota's clocked five of the fastest 14 laps in the morning session.
And while the trio of Joe Gibbs drivers led with way – Busch was fifth-fastest; Tony Stewart was 11th – they weren't the only ones. Brian Vickers (13th), Dale Jarrett (14th) and David Reutimann (16th) were faster than the likes of Carl Edwards (26th), Kurt Busch (31st) and Kasey Kahne (33rd).
"I think this test at Las Vegas and later this week at California will show how the teams will fair week to week," Vickers said. "This is the first real full series of tests with these cars at these types of tracks where we run the most at."
Vickers makes no small point. Kyle Busch topping the speed chart at Daytona was nice for Toyota, but the Cup circuit visits superspeedways only four times in a 36-race schedule, while 12 races are run on 1.5-mile ovals, like Las Vegas.
Or, as Edwards put it, "This one is way more important. I'm not texting people in my car on pit road."
"Coming here is the first time we actually get to race – drive a racecar sideways around a corner as fast as we can and do what we're going to do for the majority of the races this season," Edwards explained. "So the information that we get from this test is going to apply to a far greater degree than the information we got from Daytona."
When last season ended, and Toyota had gone winless in its Cup debut, all talk centered around the program's struggles. But after going two-for-two in testing, and if the Japanese auto maker has an impressive run at California Speedway later this week, it will hardly be premature to wonder if Toyota can't challenge for a championship.
Yes, in two short months they've come that far.
- Joe Gibbs Racing
- Las Vegas Motor Speedway
- Las Vegas