AVONDALE, Ariz. -- For Toyota Racing Development, the work began well before the start of Sunday's event at Phoenix International Raceway. TRD officials spent the morning reassuring its drivers and team owners after a spate of engine failures that have plagued the manufacturer in the first two weeks of the NASCAR season.
The issues continued Sunday, when the engine was changed in Kyle Busch's car, forcing the second-row starter to drop to the rear at the green flag. That came after an engine change in the vehicle of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, which required him to also move to the back. And it all follows a Daytona 500 in which Busch and stablemate Matt Kenseth wound up in the garage early due to engine failures.
"This is a very emotionally charged situation that we find ourselves in," David Wilson, senior vice president at TRD, said Sunday morning. "? The part that's difficult is the timing of this. Ultimately it becomes a psychological challenge to keep everyone focused and confident. The bottom line is, we need to get some success under our belt, and go out there and win today, and that will start the healing process. In the meantime, on the engineering side, we're working on this 24/7."
The issue is clearly frustrating to JGR drivers who have been bitten by part failures before. "We've got to have engines that last," Busch said in the aftermath of his engine failure last week at Daytona. After learning that Busch also had to change engines at Phoenix, Hamlin tweeted a succinct message Sunday: "Sigh ? Unreal."
Wilson said TRD officials met with JGR and Michael Waltrip Racing ownership on Sunday morning to explain the recent engines failures, after doing the same Friday with crew chiefs on Toyota cars. The two problems at Phoenix, he added, proved unrelated -- Hamlin's engine broke a valve spring just 61 laps into the life of the motor, while Busch's was the victim of a spring that was replaced incorrectly.
Regarding Hamlin's problem, "All indications are, it was just a fluke," Wilson said. "It's probably an imperfection in the wire, in the spring, that we'll find once we dig into it once we get back to the shop."
In effort to improve reliability, Wilson said the springs in TRD engines are changed the night before a race. One of those was replaced incorrectly in Busch's Phoenix engine, which cause something to snap in the drive train when it was restarted on Sunday morning.
"Human error," Wilson said. "So there wasn't anything wrong with the 18 motor. It was just again, in a course of getting it back together ? that human error was made, and it caused a failure once the engine was restarted."
Those failures are different, Wilson said, from the ones that plagued the TRD engines a week ago at Daytona. Busch's was a valve train problem that was also seen in the Toyota cars of MWR's Martin Truex Jr. and Swan Racing's Michael Waltrip, though those latter two issues were not terminal. Kenseth's engine suffered what Wilson termed a bottom-end problem. "It was something we hadn't seen before," he said. "I think we're confident that we have that handled."
Wilson said the Daytona failures occurred in engines that are configured specifically for restrictor-plate tracks, and are different from those used at more traditional venues. "We have to take Daytona and put it off on its own island compared to what we're dealing with this weekend," he added. "We have no cause to believe there's a connection, there's a thread there. It's the timing that leads you to lump them all in -- well, Toyota's in big trouble."
JGR has borne the brunt of these early-season engine problems, and has battled other quality-control issues in recent years. But Wilson was adamant that the recent spate of failures rested with Toyota, and not any specific organization.
"I know the way this is getting labeled is as JGR-specific," he said. "? There's no bearing between JGR and MWR. We build exactly the same pieces for each of them. It's a purely random coincidence. As to TRD, these are our responsibilities. Whether it's a part failure or not, we take responsibility for those."
It's clearly a trying issue for a manufacturer that otherwise has shown plenty of performance -- Kenseth was the driver to beat at Daytona before his problem, Busch has been speedy in each of the first two weekends, and MWR's Mark Martin has been the class of Phoenix to this point. And next weekend looms the first intermediate-track event at a fast Las Vegas track that's capable of taxing engines under any circumstances.
"Emotionally, this is hard," Wilson said. "And psychologically, what we're dealing with now is an issue of confidence with our teams, drivers and crew chiefs because of the timing of these incidents. It's easy to lump this together and say, Toyota has a problem. There's no cause for concern from strictly an engineering perspective that we have going to Vegas next week. We look forward to going to Vegas. We've done a lot of work. You can see by looking at the timing and scoring sheets of any practice and qualifying, we've got enough performance. What we don't clearly have is enough margin in safety, and that's where our focus is."
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