By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Unshaven and months overdo for a haircut, Tony Stewart used his trademark sarcasm to welcome the new season.
But the fact that the two-time NASCAR champion showed up for preseason testing -- a monotonous three-day session he's skipped the last three years -- suggests he's taking his team's recent switch to Toyota rather seriously.
Stewart settled behind the wheel of his No. 20 Camry to learn the nuances of his new car this week, claiming a quirk in the schedule was the only reason he arrived at Daytona International Speedway. He drove General Motors cars in the first nine years of his Cup career.
"I wouldn't know the difference so far," he said. "It's hard to say. I mean, you've got to keep in mind, you're on a two-and-a-half-mile track and you're holding it wide open. You're not going to really feel it until you get around other cars. You're not talking about 20 to 30 horsepower gains to where you're going to feel it. You're only talking five to eight horsepower difference, and you're not going to feel that.
"Any driver that says he can feel that on the race track is lying to you."
Stewart is known for his brutal honesty, which has often gotten him in trouble. No one is expecting him to hold back when it comes to this manufacturer change.
He was mighty comfortable driving for General Motors, which fielded cars that earned him two titles, 32 victories and more than $63 million in winnings. Even though Joe Gibbs Racing made the switch to Toyota this season, Stewart still has a cozy relationship with GM. He races Chevys in his open-wheel events and GM is under contract through 2009 to sponsor his sprint car teams.
So this new relationship with Toyota could be tricky, especially if the manufacturer struggles the way it did last season, its first at the Cup level. Toyota teams had difficulty making races last year and failed to reach Victory Lane, with Dave Blaney's third-place finish at Talladega and Brian Vickers' fifth-place finish at Charlotte the only top-fives for the Camry.
If the Camry can't consistently run up front this season, Stewart is certainly not going to stand for it. Toyota officials are keenly aware that placating a frustrated Stewart could be their biggest challenge of 2008.
"I think there is one thing that makes Tony Stewart happy, and that's getting the hardware under his seat so he can go fast and win races," said Lee White, senior vice president of Toyota Racing Development. "The challenge here for TRD and Joe Gibbs Racing is finding a way for our 234 engineer-driven associates to contribute to their on-track product in a way that makes Tony Stewart better than he was last year. The guy knows how to get it done, and knows how to win races."
But Toyota officials believe Stewart and his JGR teammates achieved their results by driving at 100 percent from green flag to checkered flag. They believe Hendrick Motorsports drivers, who teamed to win 18 of 36 races last season, tended to be in a cruise control mode at 95 percent until it was time to kick it into gear in the waning laps.
The difference, White said, was the technological advantages Hendrick had over Gibbs and equaling it out is the challenge Toyota faces.
"Those guys just always seemed to have a little left in the tank, or if they made a mistake, they didn't have to go hang it out and take exceptional chances," White said. "And I'm hoping and I'm optimistic that we can develop the relationship of our organization and the Gibbs organization to add it up and come up with something close to the Hendrick organization."
The first test will be next month's season-opening Daytona 500, a race that Stewart is often favored to win. His Greg Zipadelli-led team has consistently dominated Speedweeks, only to falter on race day through fluke incidents of untimely mechanical failures.
The bad luck has baffled Stewart, who used dominating July victories at Daytona in 2005 and 2006 to prove he can beat the track in every event but the "Great American Race."
He'd love for that to change this year, the 50th running of the Daytona 500. But the historical significance had little impact on Stewart. When asked what winning this year's race would mean, he didn't miss a beat: "The same as what it would have meant to win the 49th edition last year," he deadpanned.
The combination of Stewart's mood swings and the struggles that might come with Toyota could make this a trying season for Zipadelli, who has weathered his share of drama in his nine years as Stewart's crew chief.
But the duo sticks together through good times and bad. If there's one person in the garage that can calm the driver and clean up his messes, it's Zipadelli. The two have the longest continuous driver-crew chief relationship in the Cup Series now that Robbie Reiser has stepped off of Matt Kenseth's pit box.
"We have the same passion and desire to win, and when you have that and when you have a combination like that, you work really hard to protect it," Stewart said. "I think Zippy and I are now that position to where we don't see each other doing something away from each other. If one of us decides to retire, the other one is going along with him.
"If he says 'I'm done, I'm ready to do something different' then that's probably when I'll say I'm ready to do something different, too."