DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Hendrick Motorsports, which went through all of last year's Sprint Cup season without major engine problems, isn't off to a good start in 2008.
All four HMS drivers -- Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon,
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears -- will start in the back of the field in Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500 after their engines were replaced on Wednesday afternoon.
Jeff Andrews, HMS's head engine builder, said the problem appears to be related to a batch of bad lifters.
But the problem wasn't contained to HMS. Toyota is bringing new engines from California for Dale Jarrett and A.J. Allmendinger after an issue was discovered before qualifying on Sunday. Joe Gibbs Racing is bringing new engines for Tony Stewart and J.J. Yeley.
Yeley, who drives for the JGR satellite team Hall of Fame Racing, has replaced two engines since arriving at Daytona.
"We're not panicked right now, because we've had five days to work on it," said Lee White, the general manager and vice president of Toyota Racing Development. "I'm not sure I'd want to be sitting at the Hendrick shop right now with only two days to work on it and not really much time validate it on the race track. They've got a big challenge. I'm confident we've worked our way through it.
"We've gone through five days of people not sleeping, throwing up and worrying and working and studying the alternatives and the possibilities."
Because the problem appears consistent among both manufacturers, officials are speculating it is related to coating on the lifters that could have come from the same vendor.
"We took engines back after the Bud Shootout, they look really good, looked great," Andrews said. "So we are looking at a batch issue right now and trying to sort through some things to get the guys in Charlotte pointed in the right direction."
Chad Knaus, the crew chief for pole-sitter Johnson, said coating on the cam shaft appears to be getting on the lifters and filtering throughout the engine.
"Definitely by Sunday we'll have it all squared away," he said.
Johnson, Nemecheck and Mears were slated for the first three starting spots of the first qualifying race with Earnhardt fifth before the engine changes. Riggs was eighth, meaning a lot of fast cars will begin the 60-lap event at the rear.
Gordon would have started sixth in the second race that will determine the starting lineup behind Johnson and Michael Waltrip, who earned the front row for the 50th running of the 500 on Sunday.
There also was an engine change in Clint Bowyer's Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet because of a broken rod. Richie Gilmore, who heads up the program that supplies engines for RCR and Dale Earnhardt Inc., said Bowyer's problem was not related to what the others experienced.
But because of those problems Gilmore said he'll look over all three RCR and all four DEI cars before the qualifying races.
"Everybody is going to be pulling stuff apart," he said. "It might be a bigger issue."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.