When Toyota entered NASCAR's Nextel Cup series this year, some team owners and not a few fans fretted that the giant Japanese automaker would become an overwhelming force in U.S. stock car racing.
It hasn't happened -- yet.
Toyota is off to a decidedly poor start in NASCAR's premier circuit as the series heads to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia for the sixth race of the 36-race season Sunday.
Winning has been out of the question. The seven drivers who pilot the Toyota Camry for three teams have struggled just to get into the 43-car field each week.
"You're always disappointed if you don't do well," said Les Unger, Toyota's national motor sports manager. "Are we happy? No we're not happy. But we feel we have plans in place, the teams have plans in place, to move the needle as we go down the road."
Because Toyota is one of the world's largest automakers with annual sales topping $180 billion, and has been involved in motor sports for decades, some observers predicted the company would quickly spend its way to the top in the Cup series.
Among the most vocal critics was Ford, which feared that Toyota's deep pockets would drive up costs for all the teams racing Fords, Chevrolets and Dodges.
But Toyota had cautioned that its three teams, Bill Davis Racing and the newly formed Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull, would need time to catch experienced, top-tier Cup teams such as Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing.
That would be especially true this year, Toyota said, because all the teams would be adapting to NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow.
Sponsors such as Domino's Pizza, which supports the No. 00 car of David Reutimann on Waltrip's team, said they also expected early struggles and would remain patient.
"We entered this season anticipating that both MWR and Toyota would go through some growing pains ... but that takes nothing away from how proud we are to be associated with this team," Ken Calwell, Domino's chief marketing officer, said by e-mail.
The pain has been widespread. Consider:
* Toyota drivers have tried to qualify for a combined 36 spots in the five races this season, yet they've succeeded only 19 times.
* Of the 1,548 laps that have been run through the five races, Toyotas have led eight.
* Only one Toyota driver has finished in the top 10 -- Brian Vickers of Red Bull, who was 10th in the Auto Club 500 at the California Speedway last month.
* Jeremy Mayfield of Bill Davis Racing and A.J. Allmendinger of Red Bull qualified for their first Cup races in Toyotas only last Sunday at Bristol.
* Waltrip -- a veteran Cup driver besides being a team owner -- is arguably Toyota's leading public cheerleader in NASCAR.. Yet he hasn't made a race since the season-opening Daytona 500 seven weeks ago.
In addition, Waltrip's team was among those NASCAR accused of cheating in qualifying at Daytona, embarrassing Toyota on the eve of its Cup debut.
* Another Waltrip driver, former Cup title winner Dale Jarrett, has had to use four of his six allotted past-champions' provisional starting spots this year, because his car wasn't fast enough to qualify on speed.
Under NASCAR's qualifying format, the top 35 cars in owners' points are automatically locked into the next race, but the Toyota teams haven't been among those 35. So today, they'll again have to try to seize the few remaining spots with their qualifying speeds at Martinsville -- a tough challenge given the intense competition.
Marty Gaunt, Team Red Bull's general manager, said, "Obviously we're disappointed when we don't make a race. It's going to be a learning process and it's going to take time. We said that at the outset."
Nonetheless, Toyota is moving to shorten that time. The company so far has mainly provided engines, engine parts and technical assistance to the three teams, which build their own cars. But Waltrip recently asked for more Toyota engineering help in building the cars.
"And we said, 'Absolutely,' " Unger said. "Michael needs more than an engine."
Some of those concerned about Toyota's presence in the Cup series -- and in NASCAR's Busch series, which it also joined this year -- cited the automaker's record in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck series. Three years after joining the series, Toyota's Tundra won 12 of the series' 25 races in 2006 and the title went to driver Todd Bodine in a Tundra.
But there also has been a Toyota team in the expensive Formula One series since 2002, and Toyota has yet to win a race on that circuit.
"Resources don't necessarily, in the short term, equate to success," Unger said. "But we feel, in terms of the Cup and Busch series, that we know what needs to be done and over time our teams will move up."
That still worries Ford.
"We are not changing our position on what we said earlier about Toyota," Ford spokesman Kevin Kennedy said. "We knew up front that it was likely they would struggle early."
The problem, he said, is how Toyota's heavy spending will "adversely affect the sport long-term."