We weren’t able to secure a crew chief this week, so we’ll spend a little time reflecting on the year that has been as we head into one of the toughest tracks on the circuit on engines. Pocono has the longest front straight in NASCAR, meaning the sustained RPMs, which often approach 10,000 can be brutal on powerplants. Of the three manufacturers, Toyota has clearly struggled the most with engine woes this season but they have vowed to make things better starting with this weekend’s race in Pocono.
TRD, the arm of Toyota racing that develops the engines for several of the Cup Series teams, has experienced six engine failures. Chevrolet teams have experienced two engine failures and Ford teams have experienced three. Toyota teams not only use TRD, but the smaller organizations also use Triad engines and Racing Engines Plus. If you lump the failures for TRD in with Triad and Racing Engines Plus, the number jumps to a staggering 17. That number puts Toyota at more than three times the number of engine failures as the other two manufacturers combined. There is obviously a problem.
Toyota hasn’t won a championship in the Cup Series since they came into the sport. Ford hasn’t won one since 2002. There is a lot of pressure on the manufacturers to give Chevrolet a run for their money. With the new style car that has set a myriad of new track records already this season, speed is obviously important and it comes from the engine under the hood. With NASCAR limiting teams to one engine per weekend, it is much harder to push the motor and not catch yourself or your team out.
Just last year, JGR decided to make a switch to TRD after running their own motor program under the Toyota banner. There were several reasons for the switch, but one of them was reliability. Now, a year later, they have seen two engine failures for Matt Kenseth and two for Kyle Busch. Looking at the odds of blowing a Toyota motor this season, there is a real possibility that Denny Hamlin would have also blown at least one if he’d run the entire year. While Busch and Kenseth are set in the Chase at this point in time, Hamlin cannot afford to have engine failures if he is going to make his way back to the top 20 and win at least two more. One has to wonder if Coach Gibbs is having second thoughts about this switch to Toyota.
The other teams running engines made by providers outside of the corporate line are not doing any better. You have to wonder if they’re getting even more inferior parts than the mothership is. BK Racing, for example, has the likes of David Reutimann and Travis Kvapil competing to simply stay alive in the sport, cutting corners and streamlining what little funding they have to make ends meet. Blown engines can have terrible implications for them, and yet they’re having even worse luck than the JGR teams. Reutimann has lost two powerplants this season, while his teammate Travis Kvapil has been the victim of four blown motors. Problems like that can be horrendously devastating to a small team.
The remarkable fact among this whole deal is that there are ways to avoid major issues. It is possible that on a rare occasion, one bad piece slips through, but that should be minimal. For some reason, those safeguards do not seem to be in place at Toyota unless, the people making the decisions have chosen to try and push the envelope to grab those extra few horsepower. While they might be faster, pushing the limits that hard has not proven to be the wisest of choices.
With Pocono, and its rod bending, crankshaft-torturing straights on the horizon, it might be a good time for Toyota to take a step back from the edge of the envelope. The move might bring them back to the pack, or even behind Chevrolet, who has won the manufacturer title the last ten years. But the old saying of one step forward and two steps back cannot be truer in this instance. Toyota is probably going to lose races for a while until they start to push the envelope with some more reliable parts. The decision will probably save the season of Denny Hamlin, assuming they can get him some reliable powerplants that will also win races. We’ll find out this weekend. If five Toyota engines give up before the checkered flag falls, after a series of major changes we’ll know we still have issues.
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