DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kaboom!
First it was the engine in Bobby Labonte’s Phoenix Racing Chevrolet.
Then, in short order, the engines of Tony Stewart’s and Danica Patrick’s Chevys failed in spectacular fashion, trailing white smoke as they expired.
The common denominator? All three engines were supplied by Hendrick Motorsports, and the failures were unwelcome complications to Stewart’s return to racing after injury and to Patrick’s quest for a second straight Daytona 500 pole.
The problems also raised the specter of possible future failures in the Hendrick universe, which includes the four HMS cars of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne; the Stewart-Haas cars of Stewart, Patrick, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch; the Chip Ganassi Racing entries of Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson; Labonte’s Chevy and the HScott Motorsports Chevrolet of Justin Allgaier.
If there was a saving grace, Patrick said, it was that her engine blew during practice, rather than a day later during qualifying at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway.
“I only had a few hundred yards to go before the start/finish, and then I would have shut it off,” Patrick told reporters after conferring with crew chief Tony Gibson. “So I said, ‘Man, I guess I’m glad it did it then,’ as opposed to being five seconds from blowing up, because that would have been (Sunday).
“We’ll get our arms wrapped around it. We’ll figure out what we can, but more importantly, just get the next engine in and get going. I said, ‘Can I still start on the front row?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but you have to start at the back for the Duels.'”
Because the engine changes took place before Sunday’s time trials, the drivers affected still can lock in the front-row starting spots available to the two fastest qualifiers. They would have to drop to the rear for the start of Thursday night’s Budweiser Duels at Daytona but could return to the front for the start of the Great American Race.
Scott Maxim, director of engine track support for Hendrick Motorsports, said the failures appeared to have occurred in the bottom end of the engines. HMS general manager Doug Duchardt explained that it was a matter of testing the edge of the envelope.
“Obviously we have been pushing the limit, and we found the limit there,” Duchardt said. “We feel like we understand what’s happening. We’ll get the engines back over and tear them down… I think we will be able to confirm everything that is happening. The drivers have been consistent; they feel like it has been something in the bottom end of the engine.
“We think we understand what’s happening there, and we’ll take a look at that… I think it’s just part of us trying to maximize two laps for (Sunday). So it’s not a specific component issue.”
Larson was the fastest driver with Hendrick power under the hood, running third on the speed chart during Saturday’s second practice session.
Cars with Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines dominated the practices, with Paul Menard and Ryan Newman pacing the first session and Newman and Austin Dillon running 1-2 in the afternoon.