Toyotas underwhelming in Daytona pole qualifying
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Oh, what a failing.
Toyota’s first for-real laps in the Nextel Cup series didn’t amount to much on Sunday, as NASCAR officials impounded Michael Waltrip’s car after finding a questionable substance in his engine and the Japanese automaker failed to place any drivers higher than 14th in pole qualifying for the Daytona 500.
In all, it was an underwhelming day for a manufacturer whose track record of technological know-how and free spending has caused a great deal of consternation among rival teams.
“It was a little bit disappointing from where we’d gotten our hopes up,” said Andy Graves, senior manager for Toyota Racing Development’s Nextel Cup program. “But this is a new challenge for Toyota.”
With limited time for its teams to prepare for Toyota’s first season in Cup, officials knew they might be in for a rough day on Sunday. Toyota teams have struggled with speed since preseason testing in January and weren’t optimistic heading into qualifying.
What they didn’t figure on was a potential cheating scandal.
During a pre-qualifying inspection Sunday morning, NASCAR officials discovered an undetermined substance in the intake manifold of Waltrip’s engine.
Waltrip insisted it was simply oil, but officials are taking a closer look and could announce penalties later in the week.
“Our inspection team was not comfortable that that was just oil,” NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said.
Officials confiscated the engine manifold and sent it to NASCAR’s research and development center in Concord, N.C., for further evaluation.
And while it’s not yet clear whether Waltrip’s team has done anything illegal, NASCAR is holding onto Waltrip’s car at the track for an undetermined amount of time to make sure.
Amid widespread speculation among rival teams in the garage area that Waltrip’s team could put an illegal fuel additive in its manifold to increase engine combustion, NASCAR competition director Robin Pemberton said he did not know if the substance could enhance performance.
“We don’t know that, and we aren’t going to speculate on it,” Pemberton said.
The team put a new manifold on the car and Waltrip posted the 24th-fastest speed of the day, but NASCAR officials later impounded it.
“We’ll go over that car with a fine-toothed comb,” Hunter said.
Michael Waltrip Racing general manager Ty Norris said it was “ridiculous” to ask whether the substance might have been put there intentionally by a crew member.
“I think it’s probably making great print (news stories), but I don’t know that it’s going to be as exciting as everybody thinks it’s going to be,” Norris said.
But if a more serious infraction is found, a rough start to the week could snowball into a major distraction — just like it did for Jimmie Johnson’s team last year, after inspectors failed his car and suspended crew chief Chad Knaus for four races. Johnson still went on to win the race.
Norris said NASCAR officials told the team they would know more on Thursday.
“They have not said that it’s right or wrong, they just don’t know what it is,” Norris said. “It’s something that they haven’t seen, so they want to check it out.”
Waltrip’s inspection problems were the most-high profile problem for Toyota on Sunday, but nobody performed particularly well.
Another driver for Waltrip’s team, David Reutimann, posted the 14th-fastest speed on Sunday. But five of the eight Toyota drivers were 24th or worse.
Dale Jarrett, Toyota’s marquee driver, was a dismal 48th on the speed charts. But at least he’s assured of a spot in the race because of a rules provision that reserves a starting spot for a past series champion.
“We knew today wasn’t going to be pretty as far as speed for us,” Jarrett said.
Dave Blaney also is assured of a starting spot because the No. 22 team finished in the top 35 in car owner points last year. But the other six Toyota drivers must try to race their way into the field during qualifying races on Thursday.
Jeremy Mayfield was 15th, Mike Skinner 17th, Blaney 37th, A.J. Allmendinger 38th and Brian Vickers 43rd.
Now even Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, must race his way into the field.
“I’m going to race as hard as I can,” Waltrip said. “That’s all I can do.”