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As Charlotte's NASCAR Media Tour kicks off, Toyota's Denny Hamlin has some questions to answer

  Denny Hamlin: ready to rock and roll, in cars prepared by new crew chief Darian Grubb, the man who led Tony Stewart to the 2011 NASCAR championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   The weak link in Toyota's NASCAR game last season was easy to see – under the hood.
   So this season will things be any better? Will Toyota motors be stronger, more dependable, more competitive?
   Denny Hamlin, clearly disappointed last season but this year armed with new crew chief Darian Grubb, the miracle worker who led Tony Stewart to the 2011 Sprint Cup championship, says he's definitely more upbeat.

   "There are a lot of things that are stronger for us this year, and on top of that my confidence is way higher right now than it was at the start of 2011," Hamlin says.
   Hamlin's setting here Monday was as part of the kickoff to Charlotte Motor Speedway's annual Media Tour preview. And he was brutally honest about last season.
   "I think you need a season of getting your ass kicked for people to wake up and realize 'Hey, maybe we're not as good as we may think we are,'" Hamlin says.
   "We just never had the speed to make up for our problems. And when we got to the chase we just didn't have the parts and pieces to be championship caliber.
   "But this year the pieces are there."
   "That part of it was tough, because there were a lot of key race tracks, like Kentucky and Indianapolis, 100 percent 'track position' race tracks where I had to start dead last (because of engine problems), and that just kills confidence. Not just me but the crew chief and the guys who work on the car: 'We're doing the best we can, and yet we've got to start in the back again?'
   "What was it, 12 or 13 engine failures, that takes a toll on your confidence. And you feel that no matter how good your car is, you've got no shot.
   "Yes, they (Toyota's Costa Mesa, California engine department) did have a fire (in the shop), so they had some things to get through."

   Toyota racing boss Lee White: engines are a sensitive issue (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

   Gibbs' three teams have been running motors built in-house by veteran Mark Cronquist,  but Toyota executives and Gibbs decided last year to merge the two operations. Things didn't go smoothly.
   Hamlin did switch over from Cronquist motors to TRD motors, "and we started to lose even more confidence.
   "And then you talk about shutting down the engine room (in Charlotte shops), and you lose even more confidence.
   "It was just a year where nobody's confidence was high."
   While Hamlin was talking about Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota's problems extended over to the Michael Waltrip camp too, which has long been an underperformer. But Waltrip too has restocked the roster, picking up Clint Bowyer and engineer Scott Miller from Richard Childress' Chevy camp, two major additions.
   The big Toyota issue, however, was with the engines. And that's still a sore point. "TRD only had one engine failure last year," Lee White, Toyota's NASCAR director, insists pointedly.
   However Ford and Chevrolet clearly had more horsepower much of the season (though, to be fair, Kyle Busch had a dominant run through the regular season).
   And Hamlin, well, he says there is room for improvement: "Kyle won four races, yes, but otherwise we all stunk.
   "You work harder when you get beat up. Not only the team but the driver. And there were many weaknesses I identified last season.
   "When you feel your cars aren't as good, you as a driver feel you have to make up for it. It makes you a better driver.
   "Remember when Mark Martin was driving for Jack Roush, and Mark was at a test with Jeff Gordon, and they swapped cars. And Mark's cars at that time didn't have any power. But Jeff and Mark were running neck and neck on the track each Sunday.
   "At that test, Jeff said he realized just how good a driver Mark was: 'You're running right with me, with this stuff?' And once Mark had that stuff (with Rick Hendrick), you saw how good he became.
   "You look at overall morale with our three teams right now, it's way up. We have three great crew chiefs, three of the best in terms of communication and working together.
   "Last year was so tough it made me mentally tougher. And this year I have more confidence. And more confidence means more speed.
  "We've made enough changes for this season that it's going to make a difference."

   That's the view from behind the wheel.
   The view from White's command post:
   Yes, Ford's new FR9 engine was a kick-butt engine last season. "And they copied it from us, by the way," White notes.
   "And Chevrolet beat everybody.
   "But TRD only had one engine failure all year…with the exception an over-rev that led to another failure. And that's fielding five cars the whole season."
   So there's no engine problem at Toyota?
   "I didn't say that. There is certainly work to do," White went on, expounding on the big picture.
   Daytona is a unique track, of course, for engine, and Las Vegas and California may be better tracks to watch to see what teams and which manufacturers might have an edge.
   "And it might take until Charlotte (in late May) to really see," White says.
   "Because there are two inherently different engine designs in this sport. Since Toyota's arrival in NASCAR, Dodge has resubmitted its engine (for improvements), Chevrolet has gotten a new engine (the RO7) after looking at our engine; and Ford looked at our engine for several years and sent it to Warner Gardner in the United Kingdom to get it copied….
   "Chevrolet and Ford both opted to go with the historic, 20-year-old Ford (intake) port layout, while Toyota and Dodge have the mirror-image port layout of the old Chevy SB2 – with shorter runners, and more a carburetor-design layout."
   And this season, remember, NASCAR has dumped the venerable racing carburetors and is having its teams switch to more modern electronic fuel injection….which will certainly have its own quirks, and favorites.
   "To me the interesting thing will not be at Daytona but at Bristol, Texas and the rest of the spring, to see which of these two design philosophies work best with EFI. It definitely has the potential to favor one side or the other.
   "Roger Penske has only two cars, but he has Ilmor behind him, and Ilmor is a very, very capable engine development group….which has in years past revolutionized engines in NASCAR. Remember when NASCAR finally laid out all Rusty Wallace's pieces at Sonoma for everyone else to see?
   "TRD has, yes, been building injected motors for 32 years, but we're the rookie here in NASCAR.
   "And oh by the way, our engine is now the oldest engine in the NASCAR garage. We're looking at upgrading that, and maybe later this season or next season we may have some revised parts.
   "If I am here admitted that Ford and Chevy have an advantage, it's because the longer runners – which they chose, after NASCAR imposed the (rear end) gear (limiting) rules – actually do give them an advantage in the 8800 to 9000 rpm range, where these engines typically run more.
   "If we end up with gear rules where we can run closer to 10,000 rpm, I guarantee you we'll kick their butts. And we've shown that.
   "When we designed our engine, it was all about absolute minimum weight and rpm. But once we arrived (in NASCAR), the gear rules arrived."
   So this year Toyota engineers will be studying the Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge engines "as we all work through EFI 101, so to speak," White says.
   "NASCAR is doing a crazy good job of keeping the competition close…but to do, they've actually dumbed down EFI with injector locations, so no one really has an advantage now. The very first look we all saw of EFI, last spring, was perfect for Chevrolet, because that test was done by Rick Hendrick for NASCAR. After Mr. Penske, and Mr. Roush and I explained it all to NASCAR, they took care of it.
   "So no one should have an advantage now with EFI, that we can see.
   "But we'll have to see a few races to determine that."

  Denny Hamlin's crew changing engines at Michigan last summer. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




with guys who have had their

with guys who have had their share of good fortune in the winnner's circle this season such as Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, Kyle Bush will do all that he can to prove himself after his disappointing Chase

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