Four Motor Issues at Michigan Is Major Cause for Concern at Hendrick Motorsports

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2012

Four engine issues at Michigan may mean back to the drawing board at Hendrick Motorsports.
Four engine issues at Michigan may mean back to the drawing board at Hendrick Motorsports.Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- I can just envision Rick Hendrick at Monday morning's post-race review taking off his ever-present ball cap, running his fingers through his hair, bending over the conference table, looking at the dozen or so employees present and then breaking into a Desi Arnaz imitation:

"Somebody's got some 'splainin' to do."

Indeed, someone has a lot of explaining—if they can, that is—on why three of Hendrick Motorsports top six teams (okay, four teams plus the two Stewart Haas Racing satellite teams) all had massive engine failure in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

First, a valve spring issue developed in Tony Stewart's car. Then a few laps later, the same calamity struck Jeff Gordon's car.

But the biggest and most disappointing episode occurred with six laps to go when the motor in Jimmie Johnson's car let go at the worst time possible: with Johnson in the lead and only six laps from the finish line.

As if to add insult to injury, it was the second engine failure Johnson suffered over the weekend, prompting crew chief Chad Knaus to change engines for Sunday's race.

Sure, Hendrick motors powered Johnson to a record five consecutive championships from 2006 through 2010, with near-bulletproof performance. But that was then, and this is now—and after Sunday, one has to wonder how the HMS engine department will respond.

If it was just one engine failure, no problem. Prior to Sunday, HMS has suffered seven engine failures this season: Jeff Gordon (Daytona 500), Johnson previously had a motor let go at Talladega, Kasey Kahne lost one at Martinsville, Ryan Newman suffered a pair of failures (Talladega and Kentucky) and Kurt Busch's leased HMS motors failed at Dover and Indianapolis.

On the flip side, neither Dale Earnhardt Jr. nor Tony Stewart suffered engine failure this season prior to Sunday's race.

So let's do the math: multiply seven drivers that use Hendrick motors by the first 22 races prior to Sunday and you come up with seven motor failures in 153 starts (remember, Busch was benched for a race earlier this season) thus far in 2012, That's about a five percent failure rate. I can live with that, and even with HMS's penchant for perfection, no one is going to be taken to the woodshed for those disparate and rare failures.

No one's perfect, not even HMS.

Even two engine issues Sunday might have raised a few eyebrows back at the HMS campus in Concord, N.C., but that would probably have been all.

But when you have four engines go south among seven drivers on the same weekend, including three on race day, that suddenly becomes a nearly 60 percent failure rate and a major cause for concern. I'm betting that not just a few eyebrows were raised, but also the collective blood pressure of the entire HMS motor department and probably much of the rest of the company went through the roof Sunday.

Let's face it: Hendrick Motorsports lives and dies by the success of its motors. It hasn't won over 200 Sprint Cup races—far and away No. 1 among all teams and manufacturers—in less than 30 years or kept its motors together simply by happenstance, bubble gum and bailing wire.

No, HMS has some of the best technology and personnel in the business. They find horsepower and speed in places where other teams don't even begin to think of.

But Sunday's massive across the board failures have to give the folks at the fabled HMS engine shop a great deal of concern, particularly with the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup set to start in less than a month. As Johnson has proven, consistency wins championships in the Chase, but you don't have that consistency without motors that do what they're supposed to and designed to do: don't break parts, don't blow up and that do finish races.

The last thing guys like Johnson, Earnhardt and especially Stewart (his Chase chances appear a bit shaky right now that he's dropped to ninth place, just one point out of 10th) need is to worry about whether their engines will hold up at demanding tracks in the Chase including Talladega, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.

And then there's Kahne, Gordon and Newman, who are all hoping for a miracle in the next three races prior to the start of the Chase to indeed make the final 12-driver field (Kahne appears pretty much a lock, but Gordon and Newman's chances aren't looking all that great just now). And as for Kurt Busch, unless he wins the next three races, forget about his Chase chances altogether.

Knowing the HMS engine program like I do, I can guarantee you there's going to be lots of long days and nights over the next few weeks, with nearly non-stop 24/7 testing of anything that even looks like a motor. I wouldn't be surprised if they even break out things like stethoscopes, lasers and other non-traditional scientific measuring instruments to make sure what happened Sunday stays what it was: nothing short of a nightmare, and hopefully not a sign of even more trouble still to come.