DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It didn’t take Kyle Busch long to settle into his new ride with Joe Gibbs Racing — just three days, in fact.
Busch paced the field on the final day of testing at Daytona International Speedway, and his lap of 188.830 mph was fastest of all 26 cars that participated in the three-day session.
The showing was a relief to the talented 22-year-old Las Vegas native, who, despite two appearances in the Chase for the championship, lost his seat at elite Hendrick Motorsports when the team signed Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“It’s been a big deal to be able to come out here and run strong,” Busch said after Wednesday’s final session. “It’s easy. Everything’s going great. You know, being back at the shop, working with the guys a little bit, getting seats all squared away, everybody’s been real helpful, real eager, have been telling me about how excited they are.”
Few would have blamed Busch if he had been nervous about the test session, which also came in a new car. Signed as an 18-year-old at Hendrick, he grew up in that organization and found all of his success driving a Chevrolet.
When he signed with JGR, that team also fielded Chevys. But it later switched to Toyota and heads into this year expected to help the automaker find success in NASCAR. Toyota teams struggled last season, the auto manufacturer’s first at the elite Cup level, and the burden is on JGR to raise the performance.
So Busch’s showing at testing was an exciting sign for Toyota, which saw decent performances from most of its teams — particularly J.J. Yeley of Hall of Fame Racing and A.J. Allmendinger of Red Bull Racing. Even newcomer Jacques Villeneuve in a Camry for Bill Davis Racing spent time at the front of the field.
“Overall, we’re happy with how things went here the past three days,” said Lee White, general manager of Toyota Racing Development. “I think all of the Toyota teams participating in this session were relatively pleased with the performance of their cars.”
But it was Busch who carried the banner and provided a baseline for teammates Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, who don’t test until next week’s session.
“We want to make sure we give (Stewart) and (Hamlin) everything that we’ve learned, so then they’re coming back here the way we leave, so they can keep going on the same path that we were,” Busch said. “Everybody’s excited about the tandem that we have here with myself, Tony and Denny. You know, everybody’s pretty pumped up and ready to get the season rolling.”
That’s especially true at Toyota. Dave Blaney’s third-place finish at Talladega in October was Toyota’s best finish last season, and its only other top-five showing came from Brian Vickers at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May.
But there was little consistency, as the teams struggled to make races and never sniffed Victory Lane.
Busch expects that to change in 2008.
“I’m confident enough in Toyota — because we’re talking about Toyota here — that they’re going to make it to Victory Lane,” he said. “I feel like the Gibbs organization is ultimately going to be the telltale story of how good Toyota is going to be.
“You still have Red Bull, who has been a strong effort. Obviously, they came down here prepared and ready to go. They’ve been pretty fast, as well as Bill Davis. Villeneuve has been good. It’s not a stretch at all to say that Toyota’s going to be in Victory Lane.”