Sputtering engine program biggest disappointment for Toyota

Lee White leaned forward in the leather chair, his face buried in a computer in the back of Toyota Racing Development's plush wood-grained motor coach.

In December, the senior vice president of TRD scoffed at reports that Toyota was doubling the salaries of engineers and crew members around the Nextel Cup garage to guarantee the foreign manufacturer immediate success.

He laughed at suggestions the Japan-based company was going to be strong enough to put a couple of drivers in the 2007 Chase for the Championship.

Few believed him.

"We've done a pretty good job of knocking a hole in that theory," White chuckled as he leaned back. "We tried to tell everybody that's not the way we operate."

Those who didn't believe White eight months ago need only look at the numbers.

Toyota has just one car in the top 35 in points heading into Sunday's race at Michigan International Speedway. That is the Bill Davis Racing car of Dave Blaney, who is 34th.

The other six cars are 39th or worse, with Michael Waltrip bringing up the rear at 51st.

Blaney also leads the way in qualifying, making 20 of 22 races and claiming the manufacturer's only pole, at New Hampshire. Nobody else has made more than 15 events, with three making nine or fewer.

Toyotas have led a total of 119 laps out of about 6,000.

Despite numbers that should make White's white hair even whiter -- not to mention the embarrassment Waltrip's team caused the company when it was caught cheating at Daytona -- he's optimistic about the future.

He reminds us that Toyota is in the seventh year of a 10-year introductory program that began with an ARCA race in 2000.

He also asks that if things are so bad, why would every owner in the garage outside of Jack Roush continue to feel him out about possible factory support?

"I've had probably six phone calls from George Gillett," White said of the new majority owner of Gillett Evernham Motorsports. "I knew him 18 years ago when we tried to put an Indy-car team together.

"I haven't talked to him in 18 years and suddenly I get six phone calls in a couple of months. There must be some interest in something."

Must be.

In fact, the biggest story in NASCAR, now that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch have decided their futures, involves Toyota's relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Longtime Chevrolet owner Richard Childress is so convinced JGR is leaving General Motors that he expressed concern about having the organization present at the monthly key partners' meetings that include RCR, Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and JGR.

JGR president J.D. Gibbs insists there's no agreement and that he's still negotiating with GM.

White laughs.

"A lot of people play the game, and they play it very well," he said. "More power to them."

White is referring to the game of leverage.

In other words, teams are using Toyota.

"Usually what they were doing was exploring possibilities to enhance their ability to go back and have renewal discussions with their own manufacturer," he said. "There's no doubt. People are going to do that. That's how business is done around here."

White doesn't read anymore into a phone call from Ray Evernham than he would from one of Chevy's key partners.

"Anything more than somebody exploring what the opportunities are so they can first have more meaningful discussion with their current manufacturer," he said.

White's not even sure Toyota is ready for an upper-tier team such as JGR, based on current performance.

"We're just not," he said. "We're not there with our hardware. We're not there with our engineering expertise where we could complement a team like that. Until we are, I'm not about to say that's about to happen."

And if a top team did seriously approach him about jumping ship, White's first question might be: "Why?"

"Why would you want do to that, 'cause we're certainly not writing checks," he said. "We need to mature our program more before we make that leap of faith.

"We have no signed contract with anyone. We don't have a deal with anyone. But I'll tell you, categorically, we're trying to get ourselves in position where we could offer something of real value to what people call top-tier teams."

White went so far as to suggest other GM teams are pushing JGR toward Toyota for their own benefit.

"People keep driving it because of the economic considerations," he said. "You've got an economic situation with GM where as I understand it they're offering packages to those teams that are unacceptable.

"So the teams would really like to push somebody out so they can scramble over what's left."

White could be playing the game, too. He could be throwing out conspiracy theories to take the focus off Toyota's interest in JGR.

He almost sounds like Bear Bryant poor-mouthing his football team before a clash with Underdog U when the subject is broached. He would make you believe JGR or any other top-tier team would fold before switching to his team.

"Because of the nature of this business, the fans that are here that drive so much of the measuring stick called the T-shirt sales, they have loyalties," he said. "And they're not necessarily very frivolous.

"So I don't think the people in that garage are very frivolous about moving around."

They also aren't very anxious to take a step backward, and White can't promise any top-tier teams they'll maintain their current level of success next season.

"None of these top-tier teams are willing to spend six months figuring it out," he said. "They have sponsors that are, 'Hey, you're top-tier with your current manufacturer. We expect you to contend for championships.'

"Maybe there isn't everything to some of that tabloid speculation."

White insists Toyota is two years from contending for a championship.

Then he reminds you that Toyota eventually would like to own a quarter of the cars in Cup and throws in a scenario that makes you think he really is playing the game.

"The only way that gets shortcutted is if by some fortuitous magic a top-tier team can't renew their program and lands in our program," White said. "It isn't going to be because we wrote them a check or did something underhanded.

"That's not going to happen and it hasn't happened."

White also doesn't rule out the potential for marked improvement over the next couple of months. His biggest disappointment in a season of disappointments has been the engine program that was supposed to be the company's strength.

"We as a group over the past two or three weeks have come to recognize that in a very painful, inward-looking manner, and have taken significant steps to try to correct that," he said. "So I'm optimistic that by the end of the season we'll see significant improvement.

"Hopefully, by next season we'll see the engine at least on a very close measurable level with everyone else."

White has no doubt Toyota would be further ahead had it been allowed to run the same engines in Cup that it uses in the Craftsman Truck and Busch series.

"I can't blame NASCAR for that," he said. "We had plenty of warning to get ourselves together. So I accept full responsibility for that. I can tell you we recognize it and we're on it."

White gives Toyota a "3" on a scale of 1-10 for performance thus far. He calls small successes, such as Blaney's pole and Brian Vickers' two top-10s, "random moments of overachievement."

"When you go to Fontana for your second race and you have both Dave Blaney and Brian Vickers running in the top 10 and looking like they're going to compete at least for a top-5 finish with less than 20 laps remaining, you go, 'Wow! This is going to be easy!'" White said.

"Then you go off and get a harsh dose of reality for a while and find out it's not as easy as you thought."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.