Snap, crackle, pop.
That was not the sound Tony Stewart heard when he sat down for breakfast Saturday morning.
Instead, Stewart was coming out of Turn 1 at Daytona International Speedway when the Hendrick Motorsports motor in his No. 14 Stewart Haas Chevrolet broke, sending Stewart limping to the pits and in search of a new motor for Sunday’s qualifying for the Daytona 500.
“It wasn’t anything we knew was a warning, it just happened all at once,” Stewart said. “The motor they put in tomorrow will be just as good as this one.”
But Stewart’s engine issue was not an isolated incident. Also suffering almost identical engine failure were Stewart’s teammate, Danica Patrick, and Bobby Labonte – again, all driving Chevrolets with Hendrick Motorsports motors under the hood.
HMS leases motors to a number of teams, including Stewart Haas Racing, as well as HScott Motorsports, for whom Labonte drives for. In addition, Labonte’s teammate, Justin Allgaier, also had issues – although not as serious as Labonte – when the motor in his car started leaking oil.
While Stewart and Patrick will compete in Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited in cars with different motors, they will have yet other engines under the hood during Sunday’s qualifying for the 500, which begins at 1 pm ET.
And even if they wind up on the front row Sunday – qualifying that day will only determine the front row for the 56th annual running of the Great American Race – any of the drivers that have had to go to backup engines for qualifying will have to start at the rear of the field for Thursday’s Budweiser Twin 150 Duels, which will flesh out the remainder of the 43-car Daytona 500 starting grid.
Ironically, none of the four regular Hendrick Motorsports drivers – six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Kasey Kahne – suffered motor problems during Saturday morning’s practice.
However, it was apparent that HMS motors, even if they didn’t break or blow up, were significantly down on power. Gordon was the fastest HMS driver during the session, but had only the 21st-fastest showing on the speed chart.
Patrick had been running as fast as 19th before her motor let go, about 10 minutes after Stewart’s motor failed heading onto the backstretch.
“It was a concern when Tony blew up, and then we did,” Patrick said. “It’s something we’re doing in our family, I guess, and we need to figure it out. I’m sure the Hendrick teams are wondering what is going on.”
Indeed they are wondering and immediately went to work on the issue.
“At this point, from the driver comments and the data we’ve been able to look at, it is something in the bottom end of the engine,” HMS director of track support Scott Maxim said.
When asked if the motor failures were identical or similar, Maxim added, “Until we get the engines further apart to be able to more closely analyze, I really couldn’t say anything more than that.”
Although the failures impacted the teams and how they’ll start in the Twin 150s, Maxim was cautiously optimistic that the problem will be diagnosed and rectified.
“We’ll be all right,” Maxim said. “We’ll make the changes needed and I think that we’ll be able to make corrective action. We’ll be able to look the engines over closely and make sure we’re not going into tomorrow with an issue and then after that, we’ll be all good.”
HMS’s loss was most definitely Richard Childress Racing’s gain, as its three drivers shined in both practice sessions. Paul Menard was fastest in the first session and new teammate Ryan Newman, who spent the previous four years racing HMS motors while at Stewart Haas Racing, was fastest in the second session.
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