By Lewis Franck
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - Toyota’s first Daytona 500 victory “was the greatest win in the company’s history” a spokesman said following Denny Hamlin's photo-finish victory in the Great American Race on Sunday.
After years of competing at the top of Indy car racing, including a victory at the Indy 500 in 2003, the company decided to switch gears and move into the previously all-American NASCAR stock car series.
Although the Camry, upon which the Joe Gibbs Racing's winning car is loosely based, is made in America, getting typical stock car fans on board was a big challenge.
Kyle Busch captured the Sprint Cup driver's title last season and now the Japan automaker finds itself at the top of the stock car world after winning the Daytona 500, the prime objective in making the move into NASCAR.
“The Great American race,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development.
"As we were looking at why we should come into NASCAR, that was a big part of it, to have a shot at winning the Great American race, to be able to talk to the incredible, powerful fan base that NASCAR has.”
The first year, 2007, started out poorly but when Joe Gibbs Racing, the team owned by the three-times NFL champion coach, switched over from General Motors, in 2008, the long slow ascent to the top began.
“It was incredibly humbling,” Wilson added, referring to the entry into the stock car scene. “But we didn't expect to succeed either.
"Obviously back in 2007, when we started Cup racing, the fans were apprehensive.”
Even though NASCAR was growing out of its down home Southern roots there were many perceived prejudices against a “foreign company” invading a made-in-America sport.
Winning over the fans was one thing but beating the competition in a completely different racing formula which traces its beginnings to 1949 was another matter.
It was almost like starting from scratch.
“When we came into the sport, we struggled. We were not ready,” Wilson admitted.
“The level of competition that this sport has amongst the teams and engineers is unlike anything we've ever seen, including CART and IndyCar."
By 2010 Toyota was ready to challenge the establishment, and Hamlin took the Cup championship fight down to the season closer but lost to Jimmie Johnson.
It wasn’t until last year when Busch, one of Hamlin’s team mates, took the Cup driver’s title that the Toyota finally made its long awaited breakthrough.
Now with Sunday’s win, Toyota, which swept the top three places, has established itself as a worthy competitor to the Ford and General Motors brands in the hearts and minds of NASCAR fans.
(Editing by Steve Keating)