Hamlin, Waltrip defend Toyota

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Even when zooming around the racetrack at Daytona International Speedway, Denny Hamlin isn't frightened when he pushes the accelerator to nearly 190 mph in his Toyota Camry.

Hamlin, like the 34 other Toyota drivers in NASCAR's three national series competing in races this weekend, is aware of the recall problems the automaker is enduring because of gas pedals sticking to the floorboard. Production of Camrys and other makes were halted while the company worked on correcting the problem.

"We've always had Toyota's support 100 percent," Hamlin said, "and anytime we've had an issue inside the race car or a racing-related problem, they're right there on it, and they give every resource they have to fix it, and I have no doubt it will be the same on the streets."

All of the race cars - Toyota, Chevy, Ford and Dodge - are built from the same template, and the only real differences between them are the manufacturers' decals. But the recalls of Toyotas sold in the showrooms cuts deep among the Toyota drivers who represent the brand.

"I'm disappointed in the way this has all gone down for my friends at Toyota," said Michael Waltrip, whose Michael Waltrip Racing fields three Camrys in the Cup series and has associations with Germain Racing and Prism Racing. "Rarely does a throttle stick, and if it does stick, you just firmly and slowly push on the brakes then you can get your car under control.

"If you haven't had a problem with your car sticking, then you're probably not going to."

Waltrip was particularly upset with remarks by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who said people should just park their Toyotas.

"He later recanted those words," Waltrip said, "but that's damaging. I'm disappointed in the media that have said, 'What a coup for Chevy and Ford.' These are Americans that build these Toyotas, and these are Americans that drive these Toyotas. It's not about whether it's good for Chevy or Ford or bad for Toyota, it's about getting them fixed.

"I just have so much faith and confidence in Toyota, I know their passion is to build safe and reliable vehicles, and I know this problem will be rectified right as soon as possible. They're working around the clock, and like I said, it rarely happens and if it does, firmly and steadily push on your brake and your car will stop."

Bob Carter, Toyota group vice president/general manager, said there have been just 10 documented occurrences of sticky gas pedals in the United States and three in Canada out of 2.3 million vehicles.

"We've hit a small bump in the road here," Carter said. "Our dealers are rallying around this situation. We've already repaired in four days about 377,000 vehicles at a rate of 52,000 per day. We're concerned, we're sorry for the confusion, and the way we're going to make this right is take care of all of our owners one at a time."

NASCAR's drivers, with their performances on the track, can help regain the public's confidence in the Toyotas. There will be 13 Toyota Camrys in Sunday's Daytona 500, 10 in today's Nationwide Series race and 12 Toyota Tundras were to run in the trucks race.

"The most effective spokespeople we have on behalf of the company are our drivers," Carter said.