Gibbs gives Toyota some clout |

Gibbs gives Toyota some clout

Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonJim Aust, vice-president of Toyota Motor Sales, USA, answers a question during a news conference to announce the Joe Gibbs Racing's move to Toyota cars for 2008 Wednesday.

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. ” Joe Gibbs Racing spent 16 seasons jockeying for position in the crowded General Motors camp, where three championships in five seasons wasn’t enough to move the organization to the front of the pack.

JGR won’t have that problem in 2008. The three-car organization will move to Toyotas next season in a switch that will make it the premier team for the Japanese automaker.

“GM’s got four really strong teams, and I think it is probably a little more difficult to say who has a leadership role there,” team president J.D. Gibbs said Wednesday. “Obviously there are certain things we think we’d like to have a leadership role in.”

JGR has spent this season securing its long-term future in the sport. The team signed 22-year-old Kyle Busch last month, and is working on contract extensions for two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin.

Now it’s moving to Toyota, where team officials won’t have to compete with Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Inc. or Richard Childress Racing for top billing.

Although team owner Joe Gibbs has outside interests through his job as coach of the Washington Redskins, the NASCAR team is considered the family business and shoring it up for its 430 employees has been a season-long goal.

“We don’t have any other outside businesses. This is it,” Gibbs said. “We have got 430 families that count on us to make good decisions. That weighs heaviest on my mind ” what is the best thing for our 430 employees, the best thing for our partners, the best thing for our fans short term and long term?”

He found the answer at Toyota, which has struggled mightily in its first season of Nextel Cup racing.

The automaker entered NASCAR’s top series amid much fanfare, but was embarrassed by Michael Waltrip’s cheating scandal at the season-opening Daytona 500 and horrendous on-track performances.

Heading into this weekend’s race at Richmond International Raceway, the seven Toyota drivers have totaled just seven top-10 finishes. JGR’s three drivers have combined for 32.

Toyotas teams have also struggled to make races ” its drivers have failed to make the field 70 times in 178 attempts, and not one Camry is ranked in the top 35 in owner’s points.

But Gibbs is expected to change that immediately behind Stewart, Hamlin, and, next year, Kyle Busch. The move also gives Toyota another car from Hall of Fame Racing, which has an alliance with JGR and is expected to field a Camry next season for J.J. Yeley.

The expansion gives Toyota automatic credibility, while increasing pressure for it to improve its efforts to the level JGR is used to competing at.

“I think if anybody would have said at the beginning of the season that Toyota would be … announcing Joe Gibbs Racing being part of our overall team effort for next year, I think we would have all had a hearty laugh at that,” said Jim Aust, president of Toyota Racing Development.

“We certainly are looking forward to this new opportunity with Joe Gibbs Racing ” a championship race team with Type A drivers and the attitude to get it done.”

Aust would not reveal terms of the deal but said JGR had made “a life-changing decision to go with Toyota now until their isn’t racing anymore.”

“We certainly are looking forward to this new opportunity with Joe Gibbs Racing ” a championship race team with Type A drivers and the attitude to get it done,” Aust said.

Stewart, a perennial championship contender, said he supported the change.

“The only way you constantly stay ahead of the game is to put yourself in position to be leaders, not followers,” Stewart said. “So I’m excited about it. It’s a good opportunity for us to take a leadership stand.”

Stewart and Hamlin are currently in the hunt for the Nextel Cup title, and will finish the season in Chevrolets. Busch, who won’t join JGR until next season, will finish his season in a Hendrick Chevrolet and is also running for the championship.

Although the teams will technically be in transition for the final 11 races of the season, GM said it will continue to support its drivers during their title bids. That could upset other GM teams, particularly DEI and RCR, which will also have drivers competing for the championship and might be wary of JGR and Busch taking trade secrets to Toyota.

“While we understand the business nature of racing, we are disappointed in J.D.’s decision,” said Brent Dewar, vice president of General Motors North America. “With our long-standing relationship and record of winning with them, we hoped they would remain with Chevrolet.

“We will continue to support our JGR drivers in this year’s Chase for the championship. We wish JGR well as they go forward, and Chevrolet will compete against them on the track next year to defend its title as the winningest name in racing.”

In 16 years of Cup competition, JGR has 58 wins, 41 poles and 264 top-five finishes in 937 starts. Gibbs won championships in 2000 with Bobby Labonte and 2002 with Stewart ” both drove Pontiacs for GM at the time ” and with Stewart in a Chevrolet in 2005.

Gibbs has fielded Chevrolets since 2003.

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