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Toyota teams struggling to make field in first Nextel Cup campaign

March 14th, 2007 10:33 pm by Associated Press

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.

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. 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."

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.

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