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Toyota drivers unhappy with NASCAR-mandated engine adjustmentsJohnny Benson hasn't lost any confidence in his ability to win the Craftsman Truck Series championship this season in the Bill Davis Racing No. 23 Toyota. But he feels he's facing an uphill climb despite holding a 94-point lead with eight races remaining. Two-thirds into the season, the rules have been changed. NASCAR announced mandatory engine modifications on Wednesday, requiring tapered spacers (similar to restrictor plates) with different-sized holes on certain engines. At the start of the year, tapered spacers were made mandatory for all races for the first time, with equal-sized holes for all engines. The holes restrict air flow and therefore horsepower, with a smaller hole meaning less air flow and more horsepower reduction. Toyota engines were mandated to use a spacer with four 1.1-inch diameter holes. All other manufacturers' engines will use 1.125-inch holes. When similar modifications were handed down in the Nationwide Series in July, they were directly aimed at Toyota's new-generation engines, which had won 14 of 21 races. Those same engines won nine of 16 Truck series races before last week. In the first race under the new rules, Ron Hornaday Jr. won at Gateway International Raceway in his Chevrolet. The Toyota contingent immediately felt the effects. "I probably got passed by more people than I passed this week," said Benson, who finished third behind Dennis Setzer's Dodge. "[Hornaday] blew by us on the straightaway like we weren't even there. They were definitely better than what we were to start with, but we weren't bad, we did [pit] strategy to get us out front and I couldn't stay in front Dodge or Chevy. That's unlike us, we're able to usually come from behind and get to the front. We got to the front and couldn't even stay there." After the series' race at Bristol on Aug. 20, engines from all four manufacturers were impounded for testing. Data were not made public, but it's universally known that the Toyotas had had better horsepower. "This is a continuance of the ongoing engine evaluation we've had in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series over the course of this season and is a step we've taken to help further maintain a level playing field among our competitors," NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said. Of course, the opinions in the garage area of the change varied by nameplate. "NASCAR has always done a great job of trying to keep things equal, and unfortunately in today's marketplace, it's very difficult for the big three to keep pace with Toyota. They're spending their money on engine development," said Brendan Gaughan, a Ford driver with Circle Bar Racing. "NASCAR needed to step in, and I'm glad they've done something." "It's ridiculous, totally ridiculous to penalize one manufacturer in such a manner," Germain Racing Toyota driver Todd Bodine countered. "It's never been NASCAR's policy to penalize teams and manufacturers for hard work, and that's what they've done. Their policy's always been to help the other manufacturer catch up to the one that's ahead. [Toyota] worked hard to that point and got the advantage. Why spend all the money, time and effort if NASCAR's going to take that away from you?" "I'm not going to necessarily agree with [the rule], all Toyota did was their job," said Rick Ren, Hornaday's crew chief at Kevin Harvick Inc. but also Benson's former crew chief at BDR. "I've been on both sides of the fence. If I was a Toyota guy, would I like what's going on right now? No. I still think they've got eight, nine, maybe 10 horsepower on us, even with the plate, but I can race against that. I cannot race against 30 [more]." Chevrolet and Ford have designed new engines that, if approved for competition in 2009, would require the same new tapered spacer and, conceivably, put the manufacturers on a level ground again. But that's little consolation right now to Toyota teams who feel wrongfully singled out. "What NASCAR doesn't realize is that Toyotas have about 40 pounds more drag than Chevy and Ford, that more than accounts for the difference in horsepower, and that's why we were always so equal," Bodine said. "At St. Louis [Gateway], it was all that we could do as Toyotas to run with the Chevys and Fords. If we didn't run a perfect corner, they were going to pull away from us down the straightaway big-time. "It's an incredible disadvantage to be driving a Toyota right now." The win numbers were skewed toward Toyota, but three of those wins belonged to Kyle Busch, who has won 18 races across NASCAR's three touring series. Benson won four times but led fewer laps through 16 races than Hornaday (717 to 409), who had won three times prior to Gateway. Toyota, Chevrolet and Ford are represented in the top five in points, and Setzer is in the top 10 in his Dodge. So one could make the argument that nothing was really broken before NASCAR's "fix." Toyota would make that argument, compared with what it has to deal with now. The manufacturer also has the most to lose with Benson carrying the torch as the championship leader. "I figure in five races we won't be leading the points," Benson said. "I know that's weird to say, and by no means am I feeling any less confident for what we can do, but when you throw that type of restriction we're under a different rulebook now. "I'd understand if they did it over the winter. But in the middle of a championship battle, we have to change everything that we do. It's going to be a very difficult task to overcome." While opening the door for perhaps a wild final eight races, starting this weekend at Loudon, N.H.
Another Dodge team exploring alternativesKeep an eye out Saturday for an unusual occurrence at New Hampshire: two trucks running with the same sponsor but for different manufacturers. That will be the case when SS Racing/Greenlight Racing and regular driver Jason White split up for the first of two races. White has been the regular driver of the No. 08 Dodge all season, but will drive the No. 15 Billy Ballew Motorsports Toyota at New Hampshire and Oct. 18 at Martinsville, Va. SS/Greenlight is considering a manufacturer change next season and wants White to check out a Toyota. Dodge will not provide any funding to Truck series teams next season. Bobby Hamilton Racing-Virginia likely will switch from Dodge for 2009, which could leave the No. 08 as the only full-time Dodge in the series. The No. 08 already was operating this season without factory funding, but owner Bobby Dotter is still exploring all options. "If we're by ourselves and don't have any of that support [with other teams driving Dodges], it could be a downside," Dotter said. "But if we don't see a decisive advantage in another manufacturer, we're very much interested in sticking with Dodge. If we're trying to do it on somewhat of a limited budget, Dodge may be perfect." White's sponsor, Gunbroker.com, will be on the No. 15, but the No. 08 will also be on the track with the same sponsor. Dotter will drive it, making his first start since Las Vegas last season. "I still have the desire to at least go have some fun," the 48-year-old Dotter said. "We're not out to prove anything, it's Jason's ride and there's no chance of anyone else taking it from him." John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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