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Friday, January 12, 2007

Who has the best Engine Programs?

Engines are the biggest single expense on a car. They are also essential for finishing a race. It sounds simple, but think about it. Teams can recover from almost any problem during a race: a flat tire, a crash, a dead battery, even a bad transmission is still not the end of the race. If your engine is done, so is your day.

Horsepower is a big requirement for a good engine, but reliability is even more important. The teams that figure out the formula to maximize both parts have a huge advantage. Certain teams have reputations for stronger engine programs than others, but which ones are truly the best? Since I don’t have a dynometer, or access to the NASCAR garage, I thought the best way to gauge the engine programs was engine failures.

I took the number of DNF’s due to engine failures as noted by Racing Reference. This means that if an engine was headed south, but didn’t expire before the end of the race it wasn’t counted, because it’s impossible to judge that. The quick and dirty answer is counting the number of failures divided by the number of total races. This includes full and part-time teams plus teams that purchase engines from other teams (Ginn, Haas, Petty, etc).

Penske/Jasper engines did not have a failure in 2007, although they only ran 72 total races. Although Penske only won one race, they did score eight poles, which does testify to the horsepower available. Penske’s lack of wins is related to other issues with the cars, but at least the engines appear in good shape. Joe Gibbs Racing supplied engines for four full-time teams and had two failures all year. Two failures in 144 races works out to a 1.4% failure rate. That’s pretty impressive over that many races. Gibbs is one of the premier organizations, and the engine program proves that.

Five other teams (Hendrick, Ganassi/Elliott, Bill Davis, Childress and Yates/Roush) all had a failure rate between 2.6 and 3.0%. For Hendrick and Yates/Roush that is pretty impressive considering the number of teams they each support. Each organization supplied engines for over 300 races in 2006 and both had less than 10 failures. The two other companies with their own engine programs are Evernham (5.6%) and DEI (6.1%). Evernham won six races and eight poles, all on speedways, in 2006. The power is evident, but they have less reliability. At first glance, these two organizations are lacking compared to others.

Digging deeper reveals some interesting numbers. Several organizations lease out engines to smaller teams. Theoretically any team that purchases engines will get the same specs and product as the in-house teams. It’s hard to know for sure what differences there are, but the failure rates almost always increase for teams buying their engines at retail.

The largest engine supplier is Hendrick Motorsports, who support three other full-time teams at Ginn Racing and Haas CNC. They also supplied engines for Michael Waltrip Racing’s five test races. In total, teams ran 115 races with Hendrick retail engines. There were only three failures or a 2.6% rate. That falls directly in line with their overall rate and the in-house failure rate (5 failures in 190 races). Evernham and DEI take much better car of their in-house teams. Evernham’s in-house failure rate was 4.6%, but it jumps to 6.9% for third-party teams. Iin 36 fewer races Petty Enterprises suffered the same number of failures as Evernham’s three full-time teams. DEI’s gap is even larger. They had three failures from their in-house teams, including one from part-time Paul Menard, good for a 3.8% failure rate. Robby Gordon leased DEI power and had three failures himself. That’s an unacceptable 8.3%. Again, it’s difficult to know the exact reasons for failures. It’s still no surprise that Gordon will switch to Ford in 2007, and the engine factor certainly weighed in his decision.

There are so many parts and variables in play for any engine’s performance. It’s a constant struggle to balance maximum horsepower with reliability. Evernham produces great horsepower at the cost of some reliability. Bill Davis and Ganassi showed great reliability, but not necessarily the same strength of other teams. Next year might be totally different. Bill Davis Racing switches to Toyota. It’s very possible they experience greater horsepower with flakier results. All three Toyota outfits are likely to have inconsistent engine programs in year one. Other teams fluctuate from year to year. Look at Childress Racing. Their entire program improved in 2006 while other teams declined. It’s no different for engine departments.

The top 35 will affect everything in 2007. This is especially true for team's engine programs. A blown engine in the first five races will put a driver in a big points hole. All the time spent in the offseason at the wind tunnel, pit crew practice or preseason testing can go down the drain if an engine fails. For a team hovering around the 35th place, this could prove fatal.

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