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Toyota! Denny, Kyle and Mark. And Jeff Gordon raises a safety question

   Denny Hamlin: up-and-down this season, and this weekend back up (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern


    FONTANA, Calif.
    Looking like good timing….for NASCAR's Toyota teams: 1-2-3 Friday afternoon.
    This is home turf for Toyota, with the TRD shops just down the road in Costa Mesa, and home to the largest car dealership in the world, Roger Penske's Longo Toyota place, just 30 miles from here.

    Michael Waltrip's long-struggling NASCAR Toyota team is suddenly nearing the peak of its game.  Yes, new competition director Scott Miller looks to be worth every penny of whatever it cost Waltrip and partner Rob Kauffman to sign him away from Richard Childress' Chevy camp.
    Teammates Denny Hamlin (186.403 mph) and Kyle Busch (185.534) put Joe Gibbs' Toyotas on the front row for Sunday's California 400 at Auto Club Speedway. "This is a big-motor track, and we need all the horsepower we can get," Hamlin says. "We have speed this weekend; we didn't have speed at Vegas. Whatever has happened at the shop the last two weeks, we've got speed here."
   And Mark Martin, returning to action for Waltrip after letting Brian Vickers handle things at Bristol, was third fastest in qualifying. "I come to this track with the fire of a 25-year-old…this thing (racing part-time) is working for me," Martin says.
    There have been some questions about Toyota lately, particularly under the hood. Things have been rather up-and-down.
    Ford, particularly Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, have been the tour's benchmarks for speed. Biffle says this is the best car ever to come out of Jack Roush shops; he was fourth fastest, behind the three Toyotas.


Jeff Gordon: some safety questions for NASCAR, after Bristol crash (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Busch dominated last spring's race here, but Kevin Harvick rallied to win.
    Busch had that brilliant performance at Daytona last month in winning the Shootout. But since then he's faltered; at Bristol, where he was one of the favorites, he got caught up in an early crash.
    Hamlin won Phoenix three weeks ago, but he was out of contention at Las Vegas and Bristol.
    "We knew we'd have our struggles at the beginning of the season, until we get our cars built the way Darian wants them," Hamlin said, referring to new crew chief Darian Grubb. "We just have to be patient.
   "We're four weeks in; we've had two good weeks and two bad weeks….obviously coming off the two bad weeks.
    "But there's light at the end of the tunnel. We're heading in the right direction.
   "We're slowly getting where we need to be.  The more races we get under our belt, the better the communication is going to be during racing situations.
   "I am very optimistic that by the time we get to the summer months, and get to some good tracks (Pocono and Michigan are two of his best) that everything is going to be good." 


    Yes, Danica Patrick is here this weekend, hoping to gain some ground in her fledgling NASCAR career (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Gibbs' men have carry the freight for Toyota since signing on. The sudden surge that Waltrip's three teams have made gives Toyota a new dynamic.
   "The more competitive teams you have under one manufacturer, the more information you can use," Hamlin says.
   And Waltrip teams having been trying to align their engineering with Gibbs' teams.
   "With them running as good, now we're looking at what they have to try to help us," Hamlin says. "It all comes back around.

    Two of the story lines here so far are the NASCAR-Chad Knaus judicial appeals controversy and track owner Bruton Smith's plans to redo Bristol Motor Speedway before the August 25th night race.
    Drivers generally didn't know just what to make of the Knaus flap. John Middlebrook overturned most, but not all, of the penalties NASCAR had assessed Knaus and Jimmie Johnson. The $100,000 fine still stands, though, oddly.
   "I feel like if they (Johnson and Knaus) were right, then they shouldn't have gotten fined at all," Hamlin says.
   "It's either all right or all wrong.  I don't know how you can be partially right and partially wrong."
   Hamlin said in his view it should have been "no issue" at all to begin with, because "it never hit the track…don't do anything. 
    "You either have to do it all or not at all.
    "It's just weird that some things get taken away and some don't. 
     "It seems like it should be a black and white issue."

   And Bristol redesigned?
    "I don't know how they'll do it," Hamlin says. 
    "If they just pave the race track (with asphalt) and stop concreting them, they'll be fine."
    When Bristol's surface was asphalt "I remember watching," Hamlin said. "That was awesome racing. 
    "Everyone was fighting for the one groove."
    And that groove would move.
    As a concrete rack, the grooves don't change as much, Hamlin said.
    "I personally like pavement better," Hamlin says.
    Of course the reason the track was rebuilt in concrete was because the stockers kept grinding up the first turn asphalt, turning it to mush.

    On a safety issue, Jeff Gordon is raising a good issue – the placement of exhaust pipes on these cars.
    Gordon and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. were racing hard side-by-side at Bristol Sunday when Earnhardt's right-side exhaust pipes cut down Gordon's left-rear tire.
    "He definitely got into me…but you could do that 100 times and go on about your business," Gordon says. "But in this particular case the tailpipe just lined up perfectly on the left-rear. 
     "To me, that is the much bigger issue than the contact between me and Junior.  I don't understand why the tailpipes are even capable of getting to the left-rear tire. 
     "If that happens at a big, fast speedway, then that's a much bigger incident.
     "I'd like to see that addressed."

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