NASCAR tweaks Toyota engines to level playing field
Just how dominant is Toyota in the truck series? Four wins in four races and six drivers in the top 10 in points. But NASCAR's latest move should level the playing field, writes John Schwarb.
With four wins in four races and six drivers sitting in the top 10 in championship points, Toyota's current domination of the Craftsman Truck Series is obvious.
To NASCAR, it was a little too obvious.
Earlier this month, the sanctioning body disallowed an intake manifold that Toyota had been running all season in its trucks and Busch cars (Toyota uses the same engine in each) after chassis dynamometer tests revealed the manufacturer had a "significant" horsepower advantage with the part, according to Craftsman Truck Series director Wayne Auton.
"We need to make sure everybody has the same opportunity," Auton said. "If we see somebody that has an advantage over the rest of the garage to where it's hindering competition, we'll react to it."
Toyota had used manifolds from an outside supplier during its previous three years in the truck series, but developed its own this past offseason to be used in its truck and Busch engines for the first time. Manufacturers are allowed up to four manifolds for their engines, two from the Edelbrock Corp. and two of their own making that are customized for different racetracks.
NASCAR conditionally approved one of Toyota's manifolds during the winter, and Toyota Racing Development vice president Lee White said it gave Tundras and Camrys some eight to 10 more horsepower than competitors in dyno testing.
In the truck series, that gap has placed Toyota well ahead of the rest. Tundras have won all the races, three of four poles and have 36 manufacturer points compared to 20 for Ford and Chevrolet. And it's not as if Toyotas dominate the entry lists -- at the series' most recent race in Martinsville, there were twice as many Chevrolets as Toyotas in the field.
But nowhere near as many running at the front.
"There's enough of an advantage [for Toyota] from point A to point B that my trucks, my setup and my driver, we can't make up for that," said Rick Ren who is Ron Hornaday's crew chief for Kevin Harvick Inc. "We can't run with them down the straightaway, we're just not in that game. I've got to make my stuff get through the corner better."
Ren, whose driver is currently in fourth place in a Chevrolet, has been on both sides of the fence, having worked for Chevrolet teams that were inferior aerodynamically to Dodges in 2001 and then for Toyota when it came into NASCAR in 2004 and quickly became a major force.
"It just makes you work harder, so then when you get a tad bit of a concession somewhere down the road, it will really show up big," Ren said. "But don't think that they don't have other strong parts [at Toyota]. NASCAR didn't just wave a magic wand -- that other manufacturer is pretty sharp."
There are differing opinions within Toyota about whether the ruling is fair. Mike Skinner, the face of Toyota dominance right now with three consecutive wins and the points lead in his manufacturer-sponsored Tundra for Bill Davis Racing, compared the current situation to early 2004 when he drove a Tundra that wasn't yet dominant.
At Atlanta that year he appeared to have a win in the bag until a late caution forced a green-white-checkered finish, which he lost to Bobby Hamilton. Chassis dyno tests after that race showed Hamilton's Dodge to be far superior in horsepower, according to Skinner.
"[NASCAR said] 'Go to work boys, go to work,'" Skinner said. "All the guys at TRD did. They submitted an intake that falls under all the parameters. Now we win four races in Tundras and they're going to take horsepower away from us? What happened to looking at other manufacturers and saying, 'Go to work'?
"It's the wrong way to do it. What are they gonna do next? If you get more than three poles, you've got to start from the back?"
Auton said NASCAR wouldn't rule out more moves if it perceives a continued competitive imbalance.
"Obviously, the Toyota teams are the highlighted teams now," Auton said. "Back in 2001 when Dodge won the first eight races [of the season], we started taking stuff away from them when we saw an aerodynamic advantage. We have four brand-new trucks on the racetrack this year and we feel like the aero package is as close as we've ever been, with the one real significant change being the intake manifold by Toyota. They've always been told that we'll approve this but if we see the balance of the garage being changed, we have the right to disapprove a part we've approved in the past.
"We're never going to say we're not going to make changes. We're not saying that if they win the next three, four, five races, we won't make more changes. We won't say we will or we won't."
Interestingly, even as all this doesn't sit too well with some Toyota drivers, there are no objections from the top at TRD.
"The approval of this manifold was a conditional approval. When we ended up having a perceived advantage, [the ruling] did not come as a surprise," White said. "I welcome the fact that they care enough about all the competitors to make the playing field level. If we were on the other side of it, I would now expect exactly the same action to be taken.
"We're not mad, it's part of doing business here."
Business resumes after a one-month hiatus Saturday at Kansas Speedway for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 250. The 1½-mile oval is known as a fast track with plenty of room to race.
"You carry a lot of speed into the corners and have the ability to run on either the top or the bottom of the racetrack and still be fast," said Toyota driver Johnny Benson, eighth in points for Bill Davis Racing.
No driver has won from the pole in six events at Kansas, but five times the winner has started fifth or better. Terry Cook won last year in a Ford.
Kansas is the first race of the season not running at the same site as a Nextel Cup event, so there are no Cup regulars on the entry list. The No. 00 Toyota driven by A.J. Allmendinger in the first four races will be driven for the first time this weekend by Josh Wise, the 2006 USAC National Sprint Car Series champion. Cale Gale will make his first start since Daytona in the No. 2 Chevrolet owned by Kevin Harvick Inc. Harvick finished fourth in that truck last month at Martinsville.
Following Kansas, the series takes another two weeks off until May 18 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.