ECR rears up on engine landscape after Fontana

Newly formed engine maker becoming consistent threat

When you think NASCAR stock car racing and engine suppliers, who do you think of?

Hendrick Engines certainly is near the top of your list, based not only on lead Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson’s four consecutive Cup championships and the fact that five of the 12 teams in the 2009 Chase used Hendrick power.

Roush Yates Engines is definitely there, considering Doug Yates’ legend of performance on NASCAR’s highest profile tracks. And Joe Gibbs Racing with head engine builder Mark Cronquist certainly earns consideration for overall performance — even if in both their cases 2009 Chase participation was slim.

Penske Racing’s Dodges are outnumbered but their performance potential is such they can’t be ignored. Teams using Toyota power access their engines from a number of in-house and out-sourced locations, so it’s harder to quantify.

But chances are, at least before Speedweeks 2010 at Daytona International Speedway, you might not have thought much of Earnhardt-Childress Racing Engines — which primarily supplies engines to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing — and the company’s industry-wide stature.

Cup racing is a multidimensional exercise and one that can disguise stronger aspects if another element is weak. Richard Childress Racing’s two veteran drivers swear engines have never been that group’s problem despite the fact that none of their four cars made the 2009 Chase.

«That was one of the most disappointing things about last year was that the engines were so good, they were some of the best engines that I’ve ever been a part of in my racing career,» Jeff Burton said. «They’ve got great power, great reliability — they really got things figured out. But the cars weren’t very good so we couldn’t take advantage of it.»

Kevin Harvick, RCR’s senior driver, was even more adamant than Burton when speaking of his engines.

«We probably have, I would argue, what would be the best engine package in the garage for the past couple of years — last year and a half I would say — since we made some pretty big internal changes,» Harvick said. «We don’t talk about motors anymore. Motors are the best thing that we have going for us.

«They’re real reliable, they make a lot of power and they’re constantly pushing forward and that’s one of the things that we’ve struggled with in the past is getting to a point and not continuing forward. The engine department doesn’t do that, they push forward every week, and they’re constantly looking for more power and more technology and things to move forward.

«In our competition meetings we honestly don’t even talk about engines anymore because they’re just such a non-factor for us, they just keep clicking along and do a really good job.»

And after ECR won three of the five major stock car events of Speedweeks — and actually three-of-three if you denigrate the Gatorade Duel 150s to second-tier status — which is probably not deserved. ECR certainly seems ready to assume a spot on the figurative podium.

It came into even sharper focus last weekend at Fontana when Jamie McMurray followed-up his Daytona 500 victory with his fourth career pole position. Earnhardt Ganassi teammate Juan Montoya qualified second and ECR swept the top-three spots with RCR’s Clint Bowyer third. Harvick put some icing on the cake in sixth.

The race backed it up. While Harvick broke one ECR engine in Saturday’s Nationwide race and Montoya blew up on Sunday, at Sunday’s finish Harvick and Burton finished second and third behind race winner Johnson — equaling Hendrick’s production when HMS’s Mark Martin was fourth.

And Harvick and Bowyer left Fontana first and second in the Cup standings, which have four ECR engine teams in the top five, with McMurray fourth and Burton, fifth.

«We felt good about what happened in the fall, over the winter,» Burton said. «Until you start racing, you don’t know where you are, honestly. You feel good about it. I had quite a bit of confidence coming in.

«But until everybody gets out here and they’re going to give somebody a trophy, you don’t really know where you stand [but] I expected to run well.»

ECR was formed not quite three years ago with the merger of two significant engine programs, so some could argue its high impact is a little overdue. But the principals chose to focus on the obvious positives.

«First off, congratulations to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing for winning the Daytona 500,» Childress, chief executive officer of Earnhardt-Childress Racing Engines said. «They did a great job and took advantage of the opportunity. I’d also like to congratulate everyone at ECR for a great Speedweeks. We’ve started the year strong and look forward to the rest of the season.»

«The success at Daytona is a tribute to the guys that work at Earnhardt-Childress Racing Engines, more than anything,» said Rick Mann, ECR production manager. «I’m proud of everyone’s efforts and it just goes to show that the program is strong and will only get better.»

«A lot of people don’t understand how big it is to win at Daytona,» ECR trackside manager Danny Lawrence said. «We used to do a lot of testing at Daytona but, with NASCAR’s current testing policy, we have to work so much harder at the shop to make sure we have the opportunity to win once we get there.

«A lot of people don’t see that effort, and the progress that results from it, but I think they see it this year. And, it’s not just one team or group — it’s the whole organization.»

ECR also provides engines to three other Sprint Cup customer teams: Tommy Baldwin Racing, TRG Motorsports and Furniture Row Racing. The two former run full-time cars that are currently in the go-or-go-home group and so far both are 2-for-2 on making races.

Race by Race

Starting with the Daytona 500, ECR earned a sizeable statistical edge, led by McMurray, who fronted only the last two laps of the overtime-expanded event and won in EGR’s No. 1 Chevrolet.

«I’m really proud of Jamie McMurray and all the Bass Pro Shops crew — they ran strong all week and deserved to win,» Lawrence said. «When you come away empty at Daytona, you leave thinking it’s going to be another 365 days before you have the chance to do it again. It sticks with you.»

Using a Chase measurement — the top-12 finishers — ECR dominated, with five cars in those spots: McMurray, Bowyer in fourth, his RCR teammate Harvick seventh, Montoya 10th and RCR’s Burton 11th.

Roush Yates Engines had three top-12 finishers and Hendrick and Toyota Racing Development, courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing’s two top finishers, had two apiece. Again, ECR was the only supplier to have two of its cars in the top five.

Another significant measurement would be laps led. ECR dominated there as well as, with only five Cup drivers to draw from, they led 82 of the Great American Race’s 208-lap total. Harvick paced a race-high 41 laps in seven stops out front and until a wild finish shaped by three cautions in the last 14 laps, had as good a chance to win as his engine-mate.

Runner-up in the 500’s lap-leader race was Roush Yates with 55 — earned by seven different drivers — while Hendrick-powered cars led only 17 laps.

Hendrick Engines did sweep the front row for the Daytona 500, with Mark Martin getting the pole and Dale Earnhardt Jr. starting on the outside.

Teresa Earnhardt, who was involved not only in previous Dale Earnhardt Inc. successes — including three Daytona 500 victories in the years leading up to her engine company’s merger with Childress’ — and who remains a partner in the engine venture, was equally enthused.

«A new chapter in the legacy of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona was written this past week,» Teresa Earnhardt said. «We really had a double win. Jamie McMurray and our Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Team No. 1 victory in the Daytona 500 capped off the great success already achieved by Earnhardt-Childress Racing Engines during the 2010 Speedweeks.

«Dale Earnhardt Inc., through our highly successful racing joint ventures, continues to be a world-class competitor at the highest level of the sport.»

Just warming up

The symphony continued in Saturday’s Nationwide Series opener, the Drive4COPD 300. Two ECR-powered cars from Kevin Harvick Inc. finished first and third, sandwiching Carl Edwards’ Roush Yates-powered Ford.

Besides the win, in the most significant statistical category in this race, laps led, ECR dominated, with 75 of 120 circuits out front. Race-winner Tony Stewart led that category with a race-high 38 laps out front while team owner Harvick paced the rest for ECR.

The Duel 150s, while significant, can be discounted in any statistical analysis since the field of cars is split, and they are largely strategically-driven races. Roush Yates Engines did win one, courtesy of reunited Ford driver Kasey Kahne, while Hendrick had the other at the hands of Johnson.

But in Speedweeks’ all-out opening event, the Budweiser Shootout that features again, a shorter-than-normal field but one that’s loaded with the best of the best in the sport, ECR again came out ahead with two of its cars sandwiching a Roush Yates-powered Ford, this one Kahne’s.

Two Roush Yates-powered cars led two-thirds of the laps in the Shootout, but when it came time to lay out all the power available, Harvick was out front in the race that did, however, end under caution and a lap-and-a-quarter under a yellow flag. Harvick and McMurray’s ECR power plants were out front for 23 of 76 laps as McMurray lit his Speedweeks candle with a third in the Shootout — ironically his second consecutive top-three run, with a second place coming in the 2009 Shootout at the wheel of a RYE-powered Ford.

Moving on from Speedweeks

Now, as the series gets into the depth of its mile-and-a-half and short track roots, which started last weekend at Auto Club Speedway and continues the next four races at Las Vegas, Atlanta and Texas, as well as the Bristol and Martinsville short tracks, the real impact of ECR will come into focus.

«It was a great week for ECR,» the engine company’s chief operating officer Richie Gilmore said. «To come out of Daytona with all that momentum is a great beginning to the 2010 season.

«Momentum is a big thing in this sport. We had a great feeling going into Daytona but we have as good a feeling about going to the ‘open’ engine races.»

Burton echoed Mann’s statement when referencing the engine department.

«They’ve done a lot of work and it’s been methodical work,» Burton said. «There’s never just a magic button that you can push. There’s been a lot of changes, a lot of long nights and those guys have just done a really, really good job making power — night races, short tracks.

«Our short track stuff a year ago or so, we didn’t accelerate like other people did and we would really get beat up on the straights. It would show up on the short tracks. You would think that engine doesn’t matter there, but really that’s where you see a lot because it’s so hard to pass.

«They just went to work and got better and made everything better. It’s been a real big improvement with the ECR engines.»

And there’s no mistaking the initial roar of success imparted by the two veteran engine programs, which merged in May 2007 to combine the best elements of the engine departments from Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Richard Childress Racing.

«Any time there’s a merger like that or when you first talked about Earnhardt and Childress joining together to do the engine thing, everybody got really nervous because it’s something different,» Burton said. «But it has certainly worked and they’ve found a way to make it work very well.»

But again, the mettle of each of them on their own was borne out by four Daytona 500 victories in the seven years preceding the engine merger. But there’s no loss of focus on the bigger goals as the program moves ahead.

«You have to have the cars, the engines and every piece on target,» Lawrence said. «We felt great a day after the win, but now our focus is [the open-engine race tracks]. We feel we can be as good or better there than we were at Daytona.

«The cool thing is that all the engine packages, for Sprint Cup, Nationwide and the Trucks, are different so it’s not like we did the same thing across the board. They are all different and we were strong in each one. We really feel good about having our cars and engines in contention to win.»

By Dave Rodman, NASCAR.COM
February 24, 2010

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