Several NASCAR Truck Series title contenders got smoked in the final race of the first playoff elimination round at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this month, and it wasn’t their doing—it was that of their spec engines, which all failed in quick succession. Two of those drivers were eliminated from the playoffs because of the spree of failures, and now their team wants the eliminations reversed.
NASCAR announced Thursday early results of its investigation into the failures of the NT1 spec engine, which hit four of the 32 trucks in Vegas, or more than 12 percent of the field. The unlucky numbers that day were the trucks of Young’s Motorsports driver Tyler Dippel, as well as three of the four Thorsport Racing vehicles: those of Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton and Grant Enfinger, who won the regular-season series championship. They finished 29th, 30th and 31st in Vegas, respectively, with Sauter and Enfinger being the two drivers eliminated from the playoffs that round because of the finishes. Crafton slid by on points.
Ben Rhodes, the only full-time Thorsport driver who did not qualify for the Truck Series playoffs, did not have race-ending issues in Vegas and finished eighth. NASCAR did say in its announcement that there were signs of damage on his truck, and that its engine was collected for review as well.
After Ilmor Engineering, the manufacturer of the spec engines, said the rash of failures was in Vegas due to “the high engine load condition combined with the extreme weather conditions,” Thorsport team manager David Pepper called for NASCAR to put Sauter and Enfinger back into the playoffs with the “Except in Rare Instances” portion of the rulebook. The “EIRI” rule has been used before to alter postseason grids, such as, via Sporting News, when NASCAR added Jeff Gordon to the Chase in 2013 after apparent team orders bumped him out.
Since Ilmor appears to be at fault, not Thorsport, Pepper argued on Sirius XM NASCAR that his drivers should be allowed to fight it out in the playoffs.
“We would like to see a little more done from our partners at NASCAR,” Pepper said. “From our standpoint, where we’ve been eliminated from the playoffs and it was none of our doing, and what we’re asking and lobbying at this point is, we don’t want a reset or a reshuffle. We’d like to go to Talladega and the next three races and be allowed to be back into the playoffs.
“Eliminate four teams at Phoenix, and we’ll take our last-place finishes at Las Vegas, and allow our teams to race and compete.”
In NASCAR’s convoluted playoff rules, Pepper is essentially arguing an extended postseason stay. The Truck Series playoffs span seven races and eight drivers, with two drivers eliminated after the first “round” of three races, two more eliminated after the next “round” of three races, and four then left to compete for the title in one race—highest finisher takes the trophy. Pepper wants the first elimination to be undone, meaning four drivers will get eliminated after the second round ends in Phoenix instead of two.
Jalopnik has asked NASCAR and Thorsport if a formal complaint or application has been lobbied, as well as how long the decision may take if weighed, given that the next race is on Oct. 12 at Talladega Superspeedway. We’ll update this story if we hear back from either.
The NASCAR announcement on the engine failures said the plan is to “improve reliability and prevent a recurrence.” The Ilmor engines are spec, meaning they’re a common part across the field—a variable meant to make races more equal from an equipment standpoint, which can only be done if the equipment works properly. A rules update in 2018, via Autoweek, made the few remaining OEM engines essentially uncompetitive, forcing the use of the Ilmor unit.
Of the Vegas failures, Ilmor itself issued a statement quoted in the NASCAR announcement.
“Ilmor Engineering is committed to our partnership with NASCAR and to the long-term development of the NT1 engine,” it read. “The combination of the high engine load condition combined with the extreme weather conditions in Las Vegas resulted in some engines suffering severe detonation. Ilmor is taking new measures in engine calibration to ensure to this situation is corrected for all future races.”
Ilmor also said in the statement that it “deeply regret[s] the impact that the engine issues created for [its] NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series partners,” but that part wasn’t included in the NASCAR announcement. It was posted on Twitter by Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass.
Enfinger, who is rightfully mad after winning the regular-season title and being out after the first round, said on Twitter that the engines failed due to “human error on settings that the teams have no control over,” and that Ilmor’s “lack of accountability for previous issues is what led to this catastrophic failure.”
Enfinger attributed that to single-source vendors, saying Ilmor “can and has built great engines, but with no competition they win regardless” and teams “can’t enforce any accountability/change for issues” because of that. Jalopnik has reached out to Ilmor for its responses to this and whether it’s made changes in the past in response to team feedback, and will update if we hear back.
When asked how the team addresses the problem now, Enfinger tweeted, “We really can’t do anything different. If you want to run competitive based on rules then you run this engine.”
Update: Friday, Sept. 27, 2019 at 3:18 p.m. ET: NASCAR responded to Jalopnik’s questions about the call for the EIRI playoff exception and general request for comment on the matter, saying, “NASCAR’s focus remains on this weekend’s races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.”