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Toyota struggling in Nextel Cup debut

Race cars make their way through Turn Two during the NASCAR Cup series' UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 auto race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas on Sunday, March 11, 2007. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. --Everyone expected Toyota to storm into NASCAR and quickly buy its way to the top of the Nextel Cup series.

Top drivers explored Toyota's opportunities, and many a top crew member eagerly switched camps. It left rival car owners quivering, scared they wouldn't be able to compete.


Forget about winning races, the Japanese automaker barely can get into them. Heading into this Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Toyota entries are a humbling 10-for-22 through three events this season.

Jeremy Mayfield is 0-for-3, as is rookie A.J. Allmendinger. Michael Waltrip hasn't raced since the season-opening Daytona 500, and teammate Dale Jarrett has used three of his six allotted provisionals to make the field.

Dave Blaney, the one guy to solidly make all three races, has failed to finish any of them.

It's a terrible start after such a ballyhooed entrance into NASCAR's premier series, leaving Toyota's top officials somewhat frustrated.

"When we are three races into the season, and the percentages of the cars that have run have been as low as they are, you've got to be concerned about it," said Jim Aust, president of Toyota Racing Development.

"But I think the teams can rally, and they have the wherewithal that they can pull their organizations together and get the job done. We would have liked to have a much better showing the last couple of weeks, but it shows what the competition is like and I don't think it's going to get any easier."

It will certainly only get harder as all seven Toyota teams slip deeper into a hole that will prove extremely difficult to climb out of. Because of NASCAR's complicated qualifying process that guarantees teams in the top 35 in points a spot in the field each week, the Toyota bunch could be looking at an entire year of qualifying nightmares.

Only Jarrett is currently in the top 35, but he's yet to make a race on speed. Once his six past champion provisionals are up, he could join Waltrip and rookie teammate David Reutimann on the sideline.

Mayfield and Allmendinger are in terrible holes -- their zero points put them behind 49 other drivers in the standings.

"We know this is going to go on for another eight, nine, 10 races until hopefully we can crack into the top 35," said Tommy Baldwin, team director for Mayfield and Blaney at Bill Davis Racing. "Missing three races, we know it's going to be pretty hard to even crack into that top 35. We might have to do it all year, that's unfortunately where we are at right now."

Mayfield never had a chance to make the Las Vegas race because of a loose plug, which frustrated him even more.

"There are over 50 full-time teams that show up every weekend now, and it's tough enough when you get beat fair and square by them," Mayfield said. "But when you show up and beat yourselves, that's when you can't help but get angry and disappointed in yourselves."

Waltrip understands the frustration. He was humiliated in Daytona when his team was caught using a fuel additive, a crime that cost him 100 points before the season started. After missing the last two races, he's currently -27 in driver points. And he only has 11 car owner points, which ranks 56th in NASCAR.

He said he's continuing his companywide investigation into who tampered with his fuel, to no avail. It's made it difficult for Michael Waltrip Racing to move on, and the lack of on-track results hasn't helped matters.

Reutimann joined him on the sideline last weekend, and Jarrett has been far from competitive in his three races. As frustrating as it's been for Waltrip to miss the cut, he's having a harder time watching the cars he owns struggle.

"We've just got to look at every piece and part of our team to see how to improve, because Dale running last (at California) was just more than I can stand," Waltrip said. "And David not qualifying -- we just have to adjust what we are doing as a team. There's no question: We've got to have better cars."

Team Red Bull isn't sure what it needs just yet.

Vickers made the field in California and finished 10th for Toyota's best showing of the season. And Allmendinger came close to making the race in Vegas -- he was bumped out by the final car of the qualifying session.

It's left TRB wondering: If it can just make the show, perhaps the team can prove it's further along than it's perceived to be.

"This time last year we had just three employees," said general manager Marty Gaunt. "Now we have 140 employees and are racing full time. In only 14 or 15 months, we turned a concept into a reality.

"Now we have to concentrate on qualifying. If we can get the cars into the races, we can have a better idea of where we are as a team."

The struggles perhaps are steeper than Toyota expected after a successful debut in NASCAR's Truck Series.

Reutimann gave Toyota its first NASCAR pole in the Tundra's second race, and Travis Kvapil scored the first win in July of the inaugural 2004 season. In three years of Truck Series competition, Toyota has 25 wins, 32 poles and a championship last year from Todd Bodine.

At this pace, it will take years for Toyota to match those benchmarks. But Aust insists its teams are up for the challenge.

"We knew it was going to be a difficult start," Aust said. "It's not like we started the season with three veteran organizations. We have two brand new teams ... we knew that was going to be a challenge. But we still have a very positive attitude that the owners are going to make it happen. The teams are aware of what they need to do and are sorting through their organizations to make the necessary changes.

"It just shows how difficult things are at this level."