Toyota gives Nextel Cup something to think about

Bubba: You just got passed by a Camry.

But it's not all bad. The car was made in Kentucky. Feel better?

The NASCAR czars have been wanting a Toyota presence in the Nextel Cup for a while now, and as of Monday the real question is how the loyalist fans of the sport will react to the news that those czars finally got what they wanted. Toyota is in.

In one of those unavoidable twists of fate, the announcement of the Japanese automaker's agreement to run in the Nextel Cup and Busch Series beginning in 2007 coincided with auto news of a more far-reaching sort. In Detroit on Monday, Ford officials said they'll eliminate as many as 30,000 jobs over the next six years, idling 14 plants by 2012 as a reaction to sustained financial losses in the North American market.

The two developments, though incomparable in nature, served as stark reminders of the way things are going. While Ford is retrenching, Toyota is expected sometime this year to pass GM as the world's largest automaker. It's still in growth/expansion mode, blasting forward.

But can Toyota really make emotional (and thus financial) inroads in NASCAR? Even with the cars rolling off the assembly lines in Georgetown, Ky., will the Japanese auto giant be accepted by the Chevy/Ford/Dodge racing crowd?

It's instructive that Toyota officials appear so ready to learn the answer to that one. They don't sound too worried about being competitive on the track, put it that way.

"If you want to compete against the best in America, that means NASCAR," said Dave Illingworth, a Toyota veep -- and there's a back story to that statement. Toyota already has successfully ventured into other racing leagues, starting in sports-car series and going open-wheel in 1996. The company moved to NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series two years ago. It pulled out of the Indy Racing League in December after running a general second to Honda for the past couple of seasons. It isn't as though Toyota needs to establish itself in racing.

But Illingworth is right: NASCAR and the Nextel Cup comprise the main stage. You want to make a real name in the sport in the U.S., it's going to be on the basis of a whole lot of left turns and the accumulation of a fair amount of Sunday money.

It is also going to be accomplished in a series that is viewed worldwide as something distinctly American, an event dominated by Chevy, Ford and Dodge (and we'll temporarily set aside the fact that Dodge is actually part of DaimlerChrysler, speaking in terms of the corporate structure). The world of NASCAR is the world of Americans, generally and specifically -- and even though the sport's image has been remade in startling fashion over the past decade, it's still true that until very recently, the entire enterprise had a tobacco company's sponsorship covering it.

How the sport's fans will deal with a foreign automaker's presence is easily the most intriguing issue associated with this announcement. There is precedent for such a move: Jaguar, Porsche and a few other European brands competed on the NASCAR circuit in the 1950s. But that was half a century and, obviously, a few superpower turnovers ago.

Could NASCAR ever love the Camry? You might think so, considering more than 10 million of the cars have been sold since its introduction more than 20 years ago. But out there at Daytona? Talladega? Darlington?

Who'll be the first driver to run with Toyota? And how will that play? Toyota Motorsports is promising some news by Tuesday night during a press outing at the Lowe's Motor Speedway in North Carolina.

On the one hand, business is business. It isn't as though car-driving America doesn't understand Toyota as a brand, and look, NASCAR is where the big boys reside. It's fitting, one supposes, that the world's No. 1 automaker should have a presence on such a premier racing circuit.

But on the other paw: NASCAR, for most of its life, is personal. You're an Earnhardt guy or a Gordon groupie. You accept Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch or you don't. It's a choosing-up-sides kind of a life.

Now Toyota is in, and that's a Camry trying to get past you low on the turn, Chevy guy. Somewhere, NASCAR Nation is already beginning the choosing-up process again.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.