Engine trouble seen as temporary

Updated: February 20, 2004, 8:38 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

About a month ago, Jack Roush smiled ebulliently in his massive, multi-building racing headquarters in Concord, N.C. He laughed, cracked jokes and seemed more relaxed than he's been in a long time.

Not only was he still riding the high off his first Winston Cup championship as a team owner two months earlier, but also Roush was giddy about the new engine program union that married his and the Robert Yates Racing teams. He couldn't speak higher about it; it was almost as if Roush was a proud new papa, the new engine program his bouncing baby.

If there's been one thorn in Roush's side over the years, it's getting horsepower to his team's motors. But now, with a partner in Yates, one of the preeminent engine builders in stock-car racing, Roush finally had all the tools.

This could be his ticket to the truly elite class of multi-championship winning organizations such as Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and, yes, Robert Yates Racing as well.

But things got off to a shaky start last weekend with a motor fiasco at Daytona, where Greg Biffle had to change engines Saturday and lost his start from the pole for the biggest race of the year. During the race, engine failures struck teammates Jeff Burton and Mark Martin.

But no one is talking a Britney-style quickie divorce, annulment or even separation. Rather, like any new marriage, there's going to be a few bumps in the road toward bliss. It's part of growing together into one strong bond.

Mark Martin
Mark Martin, foreground, is hoping for a 'do-over' after an engine meltdown at Daytona.

"It was a great Speedweeks for us, but we didn't finish it off very good," said Doug Yates, who oversees the merged engine program with the Roush camp. "To have two problems like that early on was disappointing. I feel bad for Mark and Jeff. They had a lot of high hopes for the race, but it's a marathon. We've got a long ways to go, so we'll go back and figure out what happened and get our act together."

What is so ironic about last Sunday's calamity is that Martin and Burton tested more during the offseason than any other Roush driver. They put their cars -- and motors -- through all types of paces on a variety of racetracks to test engine strength, durability and, of course, horsepower.

They thought they were primed for the 500, but quickly discovered otherwise. Martin's No. 6 Ford expired just seven laps into the 200-mile event, while Burton's No. 99 wasn't too far behind, calling it a day after 26 laps.

"I feel cheated," Martin said. "We had a car that I believed all week could contend -- one of the few times in my 20 times down there -- and I didn't even get a chance.

"The shame of it is that we had a strong car and we had one of the best Speedweeks that we've ever had. We were happy with the way the car ran and with the power that we had under the hood. I hate the fact that in the end, the record book is going to show a 43rd-place finish, but I think that by the end of this season, it's all going to show an entirely different story."

Still, the normally serious Martin did try to find a silver lining in last Sunday's grief, quipping, "It doesn't seem real. Maybe we could have a do-over or something."

Burton was confidently riding along early in last Sunday's race, quickly going from his 11th starting spot to sixth place, optimistic about his chances, when he watched Martin's car go up in a puff of smoke. With that and Biffle's misfortune on his mind, Burton wondered whether his car might be next.

It didn't take long to get an answer. Just 18 laps after Martin's car bit the dust, so did Burton's.

"The car was running good," Burton said. "I got nervous when I saw Mark have his problem. We were running sixth, seventh, eighth, just taking our time, and something happened and happened pretty quickly. It's unfortunate."

Burton's engine failure was traced back to a valve problem (Martin's failure is still being probed). Normally, valve issues materialize over time in a Cup race; it's rare that they just crop up suddenly.

This is a setback, but it's a temporary setback.
Jeff Burton

"There wasn't any conversation at all about engine problems (before Sunday's race)," Burton said. "It's frustrating for sure."

Now, the Roush and Yates camps are hoping for a huge rebound in this Sunday's Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway.

"Sure, Sunday was disappointing," Burton said. "But, we're here to win and that hasn't and won't change. We'll keep our heads up and go to Rockingham and see what we can do there."

Martin, whose first Cup win came at Rockingham in 1989, feels equally optimistic.

"This team has really come together and we are going to get some things done this season, hopefully starting at Rockingham," he said. "It'll be good to get on a non-restrictor plate track, where things are more in the hands of the drivers. Rockingham is really the start of what we do week in and week out. It's a great track and it's a good race where you can run anywhere on the track that you need to and most importantly, you can pass."

The irony about last weekend's season opener is that for all the frustration and angst felt among the No. 6 and 99 teams, the rest of the teams involved in the Roush-Yates marriage fared pretty well.

Even though he had to start at the back of the field for the 500 after changing engines the day before, Biffle still managed a respectable 12th. Teammate and defending Cup champ Matt Kenseth finished ninth, sandwiched between Yates drivers Elliott Sadler (seventh) and Dale Jarrett (10th). After challenging for the lead in the latter half of the race, fellow Roush driver Kurt Busch wound up 16th.

"Obviously, no one on this 99 team was happy with what happened in Daytona, but to be honest with you, there isn't any time to worry about yesterday, because tomorrow will be here real soon," Burton said. "Rockingham is the biggest race on our schedule this week, because it's where we are going next. We are just going to have to dig down and fight our way out and back up to the top and we are going to do that or go down trying."

Martin's crew chief, Pat Tryson, agreed with Burton's assessment, adding, "The team is really anxious to get back on the track and show what we know that we can do on race days."

But Burton said it best, speaking for not only his team, but also for Martin, Biffle and all the other cogs of the new Roush/Yates collaboration, when he noted, "This is a setback, but it's a temporary setback."

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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