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Camrys impress at Sprint preseason testing, may contend for wins

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- After a difficult -- some may even
call it disastrous -- inaugural season at NASCAR's top level, Toyota
has made marked improvements in its Sprint Cup program.

The two weeks of preseason testing at Daytona International
Speedway showed that the 11 Camrys are fast and ready to challenge
for wins.

Although Kasey Kahne posted the fastest overall speed in a
Dodge, Toyota drivers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch had the next best
speeds and Tony Stewart was 10th fastest. And in single-car runs,
Camry drivers posted five of the top six speeds and 10 of the top
15.

It was a solid showing that had rivals wondering if a Toyota
driver might score the manufacturer's first Cup victory at the
season-opening Daytona 500.

Toyota officials were pleased with the showing, but were
cautious to take too much away from testing.

"If I told you how many times I have won testing in 40 years!"
said Lee White, senior vice president of Toyota Racing Development.
"It's just testing, and it's really hard for me to get all jazzed
up over testing because you don't know what people are doing. And
there's a month left before we race. That's a lot of time for
people to tune up their programs."

It is difficult to accurately gauge just where the Toyotas rank
after one testing session on the 2½-mile superspeedway. NASCAR
splits the session equally among single-lap runs and drafting, and
nobody is certain what each team is even working on. Some may be
looking for qualifying speed, while others may be fine-tuning race
setups.

"This is the biggest game of chess," Sprint Cup director John
Darby said. "All these teams are toying with each other, and no
one wants to show their full hand. Yes, the Toyota's have been very
impressive. But it's hard to say for sure where they stack up
against the competition."

But the improvement goes way beyond rankings on the speed chart.
Across the board, the teams are far more prepared than they were
this time last season, and their programs have shown tremendous
advancement.

Some of that can be attributed to time -- Red Bull Racing and
Michael Waltrip Racing were startups last season and simply ran out
of time to accomplish everything before Daytona.

"When we were here last year, it was just trying to throw
everything together as quickly as we possibly could just to be
here," said Dale Jarrett, who drives for Waltrip. "Now a year has
gone by, and a lot has happened in that amount of time to make us
that much better."

But credit should also be given to Joe Gibbs Racing, which
joined Toyota this season and instantly became the leader of the
five teams that field 11 cars. Gibbs is assisting TRD in engine
development, has made many of its resources available to all the
Toyota teams and allowed shock specialist Ronnie Crooks to visit
with any team that wanted assistance during the test.

"We've already derived benefit from the addition of JGR to
Toyota," said team owner Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 champion.
"They know how much power they had here last year when they raced
Chevrolets. They know what kind of aero they had.

"They're not going to give up any power or aero to race a
Toyota. They want them to be the same or better."

When JGR left General Motors after 16 years with the
manufacturer, team president J.D. Gibbs said it was so his family
business could take a larger role in industry development.
Overshadowed by Hendrick Motorsports in the Chevrolet camp, moving
to Toyota gave JGR the opportunity to become a leader.

When the team made its official switch to Toyota in December,
Gibbs visited with all the existing teams to offer his support.

"He went to Bill Davis Racing and Red Bull and to Michael, and
he did that on his own and that's something we at Toyota are
extremely grateful for," White said. "It assured our teams that
Joe Gibbs Racing was here to help everyone, and it's because they
realize the better the overall Toyota program is, the better Joe
Gibbs Racing will be."

A specific set of Toyota engineers worked strictly on the
restrictor-plate program that will be used in the Daytona 500, and
that focus on one aspect contributed to the gains the teams have
shown. But it's also created the possibility that the other
programs still lag behind, and the first test will be later this
month when NASCAR heads to an intermediate track test in Las Vegas
and a superspeedway test in California.

White said Mark Cronquist, Gibbs' respected engine builder, has
been given responsibility for making sure the cars have the
horsepower needed to be competitive beyond Daytona.

It's also far too early to declare the teams ready for the
season-opener. Only five of the 11 cars are guaranteed a spot in
the 500 right now. And the unique qualifying format of the Daytona
500 means that only two cars will make it into the field on speed.
The others must race their way in.

But TRD is determined to be ready.

"We all recognize that it begins and ends with the Daytona
500," White said. "It's the Super Bowl and we want 11 cars in that
race. We don't know that we'll get all 11 in there, but we sure are
going to try."