Engine trouble stalls Hendrick team

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For years, Hendrick Motorsports' motors have developed a reputation for near-bulletproof durability.

But Wednesday, a significant chink developed in that armor, prompting five of nine Hendrick-built motors to be pulled from their respective cars.

"There's definitely an issue," Jeff Gordon said shortly after the motor in his No. 24 Chevrolet was removed.

Initial examination of the suspect motors centered on the valve lifters, said Jeff Andrews, director of engine development for Hendrick Motorsports.

"We did not have any of them that truly broke," Andrews said. "We have assumptions based on some early signs we saw in some checkovers following that early practice."

Motors in all four Hendrick-owned cars – those of Gordon, two-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – were all removed around 3 p.m. (ET) Wednesday during the longest Cup practice session of Speedweeks thus far.

The motor in the CNC/Haas Chevrolet of Scott Riggs was also removed.

Hendrick-built motors were not removed from the CNC/Haas Chevy of Jeremy Mayfield, the two Furniture Row Racing Chevys of Joe Nemechek and Kenny Wallace and the Miccosukee Indian Nation Chevrolet.

But later Wednesday, the problem widened to include several Toyotas that also had their engines pulled for potentially similar problems with the lifters.

The Toyota Camrys of Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, A.J. Allmendinger and J.J. Yeley all were forced to switch engines.

"It sounds like the Gibbs and Hendrick stuff is very similar," said Richie Gilmore, director of the joint Dale Earnhardt Inc./Richard Childress Racing engine development program. "A lot of us use the same vendors, so I wouldn't be surprised if it's that same type of issue with the Hendrick's stuff, that it's a coating issue.

"If it's a bad batch of coating or gets off just a little bit – the coating wears off – it's just like glass. Then you have steel on steel and have that coating going through your engine. It's basically like a diamond: it goes through the engine, wears out your rings and your bearings. It's not a good thing."

In Wednesday's first session, the four Hendrick-owned cars were considerably down on speed and power. Gordon was the fastest of the quintet, but was just 19th fastest in the field, more than 1.5 mph slower than Kyle Busch.

Johnson, who won the pole for Sunday's Daytona 500, was 27th fastest, followed by Earnhardt (43rd) and Mears (44th). Riggs fared better, as he was third-fastest of the field in the first practice.

But when the second session took place two hours later, all five drivers were conspicuous by their absence on the racetrack.

Andrews said team engineers are focusing on a possible batch of bad parts supplied by a third-party vendor.

With Johnson on the pole and four of the top six drivers during Sunday's qualifying session being Hendrick drivers, time is of the essence to find and fix the problem.

"It is a concern, naturally, because it is a widespread problem, but it is early enough that we can fix it," Andrews said. "We have a group of guys back in Charlotte (at the Hendrick motor shop) – the best group of guys in my mind – that have already started on a fix for the program.

"We will get this stuff back, get it rebuilt and get it brought back down here. What we had to put in the cars, we have a lot of confidence in for tomorrow."

Teams and drivers won't be penalized for making engine changes, although all five drivers will have to start at the back of the field in Thursday's Gatorade Twin Duels 150 events. Johnson, however, won't lose his spot on the pole for Sunday's race unless another engine change takes place following Thursday's duels. If that occurs, Johnson would have to start the 500 at the back of the field, as would any other driver who undergoes an engine change after Thursday's duels.

Another Chevrolet team, the No. 07 of Clint Bowyer, also was forced to make a motor change Wednesday, but due to a broken push rod that subsequently broke a valve, as well.

"It's a different issue, a different situation," Gilmore said.

Ford and Dodge teams appeared to be unaffected.

"Sometimes you find that things don't work the same as in the preseason and then you have trouble and you have an epidemic," Jack Roush, who owns five Cup teams, said of the Chevrolet/Toyota issues.

"We don't use the same vendors as the Toyota or Hendrick builders, so I would expect if I had troubles, I would not have the same trouble as them. Right now, I don't see any trouble."

Roush's teams suffered through a problem with coating during offseason testing, but eventually corrected the problem before coming to Daytona for Speedweeks.

"We've been here at Daytona where we failed four out of five cars. I've seen Hendrick do the same thing and others have had trouble at Talladega. It's just a sign of the times, everybody trying real hard. If the quality of the parts you buy isn't what you expect, then you have trouble."

Fellow Ford team owner Doug Yates said his two-car team also has not had any problems. Ditto for Dodge.

"Thank God none of ours are backed into the garage right now," Mike Delahanty, senior manager of Dodge's motorsports program. "I was just talking to our race engineers and they said there's no such thing as a random failure.

"There's typically a root cause somewhere. It's not a fluke thing."

With nothing else to do during Wednesday's second practice, Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, had little else to do but to spray polishing solution on the hood of Johnson's No. 48 fender to make it shinier.