The clock may have struck midnight for Kurt Busch, the Cinderella of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The 2004 champion is now 73 points below the Championship 4 cutline after experiencing a blown engine this past weekend at Kansas Speedway.
But was it simply just misfortune, or was there more to it than that?
Chip Ganassi Racing switched to using Hendrick Motorsports engines following the 2012 season. Prior to that, the team had Ernie Elliott build its motors from 2001-08 before getting engines from Earnhardt-Childress Racing following the switch from Dodge to Chevrolet and the merge with Dale Earnhardt Inc.
CGR had 28 blown motors during its Elliott era, but equipment also wasn’t as durable then as it is now, and parts failed more regularly. Jimmie Johnson, for example, has dropped out of 14 races due to engine troubles during his Cup career. Nine of those occurred between 2002-08. This shows that Hendrick’s engines were more durable than Elliott’s back then and that they are even more durable today.
Ganassi’s team then had seven engine failures during its four years with ECR before moving to Hendrick. In the first two years with HMS power, Ganassi didn’t have any issues. The Nos. 1 and 42 didn’t make the playoffs those years, either.
But since 2015, CGR has had seven engine failures. All seven have occurred during the last 10 races of a season. Meanwhile, Johnson hasn’t had a single blown Hendrick motor in his last five seasons.
The one in 2015 didn’t have much of an impact. It happened at Talladega Superspeedway, three races after Jamie McMurray had already failed to advance to the Round of 12. Plus, that postseason was also when Johnson’s last engine failure occurred.
The following year, though, McMurray entered the Round of 12 cutoff race at Dover International Speedway just five points below the cutline. But engine trouble in that race knocked him out of the playoffs. Johnson and Chase Elliott, who were also racing for a Round of 12 spot with a Hendrick engine, had no such issues and moved on. That instance could be chalked up to coincidence, and the Hendrick duo was likely to hold their standing above McMurray anyways.
The 2017 playoffs is where it gets a little more shady. McMurray and Kyle Larson both advanced their CGR cars into the Round of 12 over Hendrick’s Kasey Kahne. McMurray crashed out in two of the next three races to eliminate himself, but Larson was sitting pretty for the Round of 8, 29 points over the cutline heading into the cutoff race of Kansas Speedway. But Larson’s engine failed at Kansas, allowing Johnson to make it into the Round of 8 over him.
McMurray missed the playoffs the following year, and Larson was eliminated after the Round of 12. But Larson exited the fall Martinsville Speedway race, the first Round of 8, with an engine failure. So if he had advanced to that round of the playoffs, an engine problem likely would’ve knocked him out again.
In 2019, Busch, after taking over the No. 1, had a quick exit from the playoffs. Larson made it all the way to the Round of 8 this time, but didn’t perform well enough to make the Championship 4. But had he, he probably wouldn’t have won the championship, because the engine let go at the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Granted, Hendrick’s William Byron also had an engine fail in that race and Elliott had engine troubles earlier in the 2019 playoffs.
Fast forward to now, and the most recent Ganassi engine problem has put Busch in a points hole so big he’ll likely have to win one of the next two races to advance. This has led to theories and conspiracies saying that Hendrick is intentionally giving Ganassi faulty motors in the playoffs to increase the odds of an HMS driver winning the championship.
Is that the case? Probably not. I’m sure the guys at the CGR shop look over every inch of the engines they get from Hendrick. If these engines were built to fail, don’t you think they would find whatever the problem was before the race?
Ganassi is likely getting worse engines than the Hendrick cars because HMS isn’t going to give away the cream of the crop to a competitor. But the Hendrick engine shop does want the engines to do well for CGR because it wants to keep its customer happy so they’ll keep buying.
It isn’t good business to trade customers for a slightly better shot at a championship. Hendrick has only won one title since Ganassi started having the engine troubles in the playoffs, and that was in 2016 when Johnson only won it because Carl Edwards and Joey Logano took each other out. The team hasn’t made it back to the Championship 4 since, so Ganassi’s problems obviously aren’t benefitting it much.
It more likely has something to do with the way the CGR shop is tuning the engines or setting up the transmissions in its cars. With it being the postseason, it might be trying to get a little extra performance out of the cars, sacrificing durability in the process.
But it’s much more fun to say that Hendrick is sabotaging Ganassi in the playoffs. Why let the facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory?
This whole scenario wouldn’t even exist if the top couple teams didn’t build the engines for majority of the field, if everyone was buying their engines from an outside source against whom they weren’t competing. That has happened now in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series and ARCA Menards Series with the Ilmor spec engines.
The only problem with Ilmor is that it is pretty much a monopoly. Teams should have at least a few options for outside vendors. Engine vendor competition would lower the cost of the engines and keep the vendors striving to keep making their products better. Something like that could cause mix-ups in the running order, or maybe one engine supplier is faster one week and a different one the next.
Regardless, as NASCAR moves into the NextGen car in 2022, hopefully the business model for engines in the Cup Series will be shaken up. That way, if another Ganassi engine is blown in the playoffs of years to come, no one can even think about blaming a competing team.