MARTINSVILLE, Va._ The start of the 2011 season for Joe Gibbs Racing engine department has been a bit of a disaster and a far cry from success. The team had two engine issues last week in Fontana, a catastrophic failure in Las Vegas and an engine down 100 horsepower for the majority of the race in Bristol. In addition, they have had three pre-race engine changes due to concern or failures. 

Even before the season started, the Gibbs engine department suffered a major setback when an engine exploded on the dynamometer in January. The fire and water damaged two of the team’s dynos just weeks before the season-opening race in Daytona.

Despite the pre-season explosion, few believe the fire has led to the problems seen in the first five races of the year.

“The engine dyno deal — I don’t know when that is going to be up and running again, but I would presume that it’s still down,” Kyle Busch said on Friday. “We do have a lot of support still through the TRD (Toyota Racing Development) guys out in Costa Mesa. They’re doing a lot of stuff. They’re doing a lot of testing. We work hand in hand together. They do a lot of stuff for us and we do some stuff for them and vice versa all of the time. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a huge issue. It would definitely be better so we could have all of our resources back up and running to an optimum and trying to move along with where we are at.”

Busch’s crew chief Dave Rogers said the loss of the two dynos was not connected to the engine failures experienced early in the season. Rogers said the January fire definitely set the engine program back, but it does not explain the failures. He went on to say the team still had working dynos, but the damage caused by the fire has made the guys back at the shop simply work harder to make up for the loss.

Ford engine builder Doug Yates understands the challenges facing JGR, having suffered a similar dyno fire years ago, but agrees with Rogers saying the fire has not led to the problems seen early in the season.

“It does set you back because it breaks your rhythm,” Yates said. “We have a process we all go through developing and designing these engines, so anything like that will set you back some. It probably has nothing to do with some of the things they’ve had happen this year. Whenever engine guys have problems, it just goes to show you how tough this is. These engines are pushed to the absolute limits and any small change could have a bad effect.

“Those guys are really good at what they do,” he added. “I think we all push the limits and unfortunately any change shows the weakness and how close to the edge these things are. I don’t think the dyno situation forced them to have these problems.”

While some of the issues have been pinpointed, the team is still searching for answers. During last week’s race in Fontana, both Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano had valve issues under the hood, however the team has yet to determine the cause of Busch’s Las Vegas failure.

“It’s something that at least we know what happened and where the source of the problem is. Anytime that you can figure all that out, you’re moving forward,” Busch said. “For us, it was like my bottom end issue that we had at Las Vegas — that was catastrophic failure. We don’t know what happened so we haven’t been able to diagnose that, but we haven’t had any of those in so long that we don’t know if it was just a part malfunction or something that we missed or what. We already found the source of last week’s issues with both Denny and Joey so we feel pretty confident that we’re heading in the right direction with that stuff.”

Perhaps there is no better place to turn their luck around than Martinsville. In the last three Martinsville races, Hamlin has three wins, Busch has two top 5s and Logano has a second-place finish and a top 10. While it is certainly not the hardest track on motors, it presents the perfect opportunity to make up for lost ground and get back into the hunt. Logano will start Sunday’s race fourth, Hamlin is fifth and Busch will roll off 11th.

There is no doubt the JGR needs to get its engine issues figured out sooner rather than later. With all three teams expected to be among the top championship contenders, Busch is their only driver in the top 20 in points (he sits fourth entering Martinsville). Hamlin is currently 21st, 75 points behind leader Carl Edwards, while Logano is back in 29th, 94 points out as the season creeps ever closer to the all-important summer stretch.

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