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Gibbs switches to Toyota

Nextel Cup Series team will drop Chevrolets and go with newcomer, elevating the Japanese automaker's status.

September 06, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Joe Gibbs Racing, a top team in NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series, said Wednesday it would switch to Toyota race cars from Chevrolets starting next year.

The move by Gibbs -- the team owned by NFL coach Joe Gibbs whose drivers include two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart -- instantly lifted the Japanese-based automaker from a stumbling newcomer in stock-car racing's premier class to a major competitor.

"We want to be the team to beat," said J.D. Gibbs, Gibbs' son and team president. "They want to be the manufacturer to beat."

The change also was a blow for General Motors, which provided Chevrolets and Pontiacs to Gibbs since the team was formed in 1992. Gibbs has been racing Chevys since 2003.

"While we understand the business nature of racing, we are disappointed in J.D.'s decision," General Motors Vice President Brent Dewar said in a statement. "We hoped they would remain with Chevrolet."

But Stewart, who won the championship in 2002 in a Pontiac and again in 2005 in a Chevrolet, said he was ready to drive the Toyota Camry in the Cup series.

"I'm excited about this," he said at a news conference at the team's headquarters in Huntersville, N.C.

"I feel like the only way you constantly stay ahead of the game is to be leaders, not followers," Stewart said. "That's why I signed up with Joe Gibbs Racing in the first place."

Stewart also said he's negotiating an extension of his Gibbs contract beyond 2009.

The Toyota announcement was expected. Amid widespread rumors of the change, Kyle Busch -- who is leaving the powerhouse Chevrolet team of Hendrick Motorsports after this year to join Stewart and Denny Hamlin at Gibbs -- all but confirmed the move before last Sunday's race at California Speedway.

J.D. Gibbs was somewhat vague as to exactly why his team chose Toyota's support over GM. But he said Gibbs prized being the top team for Toyota as opposed to being only one of the four major Chevrolet teams.

"This gives us that leadership role," he said. "Will this make us more competitive on the race track? The consensus answer [on the team] was yes."

What he didn't say outright is that Toyota is among the most prosperous of the world's automakers and has the deep pockets and engineering resources to invest in racing. Toyota's U.S. operations are based in Torrance, and it has a major racing facility in Costa Mesa.

"We are confident that partnering with the Gibbs team will raise the level of our entire Toyota NASCAR program," said Jim Aust, president of Toyota Racing Development.

Toyota started this year with three smaller teams: Bill Davis Racing, and the newly formed teams of Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull.

They've all struggled and a Toyota driver has yet to win a Cup race through 25 events. Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, said in a media conference call that "it was probably only a matter of time before Toyota was able to obtain the services of one of the best teams out there."

"It's nice to see that we're spreading the teams out a little bit" among manufacturers, he said.

And starting next year, the difference between the manufacturers will be limited mostly to their engines, because NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow -- which has a body and chassis that's uniform for everyone -- will become mandatory in the Cup series.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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