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Toyota: No intent behind Kenseth infraction

April 24, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Toyota: No intent behind Kenseth infraction
Underweight connecting rod a mistake that harmed more than helped, company says

Related: NASCAR news release | Top NASCAR penalties | Video | Inside engines | Fantasy take

David Wilson of Toyota Racing Development was on the telephone with Joe Gibbs until late Tuesday night, reassuring the team owner of one thing: there was no intent.

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth was saddled Wednesday with one of the more severe penalties in recent memory, due to a connecting rod in the engine of his No. 20 car that was found to be lighter than allowed during tear-down at the NASCAR Research and Development Center. NASCAR has historically treated engine offenses very harshly, and this was no different -- Kenseth was docked 50 points, his pole at Kansas Speedway was vacated and his race victory last weekend cannot be used toward Chase for the Sprint Cup eligibility.

Crew chief Jason Ratcliff was also fined $200,000 and suspended six weeks; Gibbs lost 50 owner points and won’t be allowed to accumulate any more from the No. 20 for six weeks; and Toyota was docked five points in the manufacturers’ standings. JGR plans to appeal the penalties, while TRD is zeroing in on what caused the infraction in the first place. But the company says it is sure of one thing -- this was not an attempt to gain a competitive advantage.

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“There obviously was no intent,” said Wilson, senior vice president at TRD, which manufacturers engines for Toyota teams in NASCAR’s premier series. “… It was an oversight. Now, how can this happen? Obviously that’s our biggest concern and what we’re principally focused on today.”

According to the Sprint Cup Series Rule Book, connecting rods must be composed of solid magnetic steel with a minimum weight of 525 grams. Wilson said only one of the vehicle’s eight connecting rods was in question, and it measured 2.7 grams under the minimum weight. Its neighboring rod, he added was more than 4 grams over the minimum.

Wilson said NASCAR mandates the material and minimum weight of a connecting rod, because otherwise engine builders would try to construct them out of a lighter substance such as titanium. If there was an intent to gain a competitive advantage, he added, all the connecting rods would have been lighter, and not just one. Making one rod lighter than the others only unbalances the load on the bearings, and carries a higher risk of failure.

“The notion that you would reduce the weight of one rod, and by 2.3 grams, as an opportunity to enhance your performance is patently absurd. Because what you actually risk is placing an uneven bearing load on the crank shaft. What you strive for is every connecting rod to weigh the same … At 10,000 RPM, if you don’t have a balanced bearing load, you’re going to fail,” Wilson said.

“You’d never do that. If we were going to undertake this, it would absolutely be across all eight cylinders, or you’re running the risk of damaging a main bearing and failing an engine. … There’s zero motivation, zero incentive” to have one rod lighter than the others, he added.

So how did it happen? Like many engine builders, TRD outsources some components from vendors -- including connecting rods. TRD has been using the same supplier for connecting rods since the fall of last year, and Wilson said the company is certified at the highest level by the International Organization for Standardization.

Since TRD can’t measure every part that comes to its facility from a vendor, it leans on that ISO certification as a safeguard. “We place a lot of the burden of that qualify control on them,” Wilson said. “Because that’s by definition what they do. What doesn’t correlate here is, how could that supplier have made that mistake? And what is our exposure level?”

Wilson said TRD checked the paperwork for all the engines in Toyota vehicles bound for this weekend’s event at Richmond International Raceway, to ensure none of the connecting rods were suspect. They weren’t. “So at that point we’re characterizing it as a fluke,” he added. “At this point, we’re not making any excuses. And whether it’s a fluke or not, it’s on us.”

How much of a role that might play in Gibbs’ planned appeal to the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel is yet to be seen. “We are going to support them in whatever manner we can,” Wilson said. “Certainly we think we have a responsibility therein. They’re running the show, though. It’s their appeal. We’re there to hopefully support them, and achieve a good result.”

It’s been a stressful season for TRD, which, despite its success on the race track, has endured some rough weeks early in the year due to valve problems. But Wilson said NASCAR has torn down 10 Toyota engines this season, and did the same to roughly 26 last year, and none of them revealed similar issues with connecting rods. At the end of their long telephone conversation into the wee hours Wednesday morning, Gibbs ensured Wilson there was no plan to change engine manufacturers.

“The last thing he left me with last night was, ‘Hey, we signed up for this partnership, and we are going to get through this together as partners. We have no intention of laying you guys away. We take the good with the bad,’” Wilson said. “You remember last year through the crises with Kyle (Busch), that arguably could have stressed this partnership. But we stood firm behind the team just as we expect they’re going to stand firm behind us. We’ll get through this.”

 

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