Truck series teams weighing pros and cons of spec engines vs. OEMs

Brett Moffitt pulled away in his Toyota at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Feb. 24 for his second career truck series win. Paul Abell/AP Photo

When the Camping World Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway came down to a two-lap dash to the finish, it potentially came down to the performance of the engines.

In the past, that would tend to have engine builders puffing out their chests in Victory Lane and garner a huge sense of pride.

Now, it's about economics and decisions, made by both race team owners and NASCAR officials.

On that final restart, Brett Moffitt outdueled Johnny Sauter, and Noah Gragson got around Sauter, as well, with Moffitt and Gragson finishing 1-2.

Moffitt and Gragson had one thing in common: They both had Joe Gibbs Racing engines that have support from Toyota Racing Development.

Most of the other trucks at the end of the race had what NASCAR has dubbed as the "NT1" engine -- an engine built by Ilmor and that has been used in ARCA. The spec engine is designed to lower costs for teams, potentially cutting costs in half of those multi-truck teams spending $1 million or more in leasing engines.

Although NASCAR makes the engine optional, it appears the rules weigh toward the spec engine rather than one supported by the manufacturer.

But on that restart ...

"Obviously, absolutely [it helps him]," Sauter said. "I felt like I nailed that start perfectly. I was wide open those last two laps, and they just [went by].

"Maybe there is something there a little bit. It's just tough. How do you know? Maybe he timed it just right, laying back [before the restart] a little bit. You just don't know."

And that's the tough part about trying to balance two very different engines.

Toyota, in general, wasn't in favor of the move, especially because Kyle Busch Motorsports has been a dominant team, and any strong KBM performance could be inferred as being engine-related instead of team-related. Gragson, who drives for KBM, was the only one among the three KBM trucks to have a Toyota engine in his truck at Atlanta.

The trucks hit the track Thursday for practice for their race Friday (9 p.m. ET) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the first time since 1999 that the series has run three consecutive weeks to open the year. Teams once again will have to make a choice on which engine to race.

"It's inevitable that we're going to have to go to change," said Moffitt crew chief Scott Zipadelli. "It seems like that's the direction that we're going to have to go.

"When are we going to go there? It's probably not too far away."

Obviously, teams that wanted to use manufacturer engines have lobbied to make sure NASCAR's rules promote parity.

"At times, I felt like the NT1 had an advantage, and I felt our truck on the initial takeoff, I felt like our engine was really strong," Zipadelli said. "I think both engines could run competitively throughout the season in every race track if there were some little tweaks.

"I think we're close."

But Zipadelli and everyone else knows the NASCAR goal is to save teams money. While NASCAR has not promoted the spec engine to help mitigate any hard feelings from manufacturers, it obviously is something the industry is talking about.

Will NASCAR continue to look at this for future series? That could be really tough, as Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota (commonly referred to as OEMs as an original equipment manufacturer) -- feel that having their engine blocks are a key component to why they race.

Because Ilmor has the ability to sell to the entire garage (most engine builders are tied to one manufacturer) and knows it will be the standard engine, it has fewer research and development costs and also has the ability to lower costs with an increased demand.

"Obviously, we recognize that the cost of the engines in the truck series was one of the major expenses," series director Brad Moran said. "We wanted to tackle it. We felt it would be for the wellness of the truck series to look at it and come up with an alternative engine."

NASCAR hopes that by lowering engine costs, it at least gives a manufacturer the incentive to support the series from the technology standpoint without having to dive into engine development.

"When you look at the potential for some new OEMs to take a look at the series, maybe in a one off position [it] makes it a little easier, possibly, to come in and not necessarily put all of that money toward engine costs and kind of look at the brand instead with certain truck brands," NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell said.

"That was one of the things we had to balance. Certainly, [it's] a tough conversation with the OEMs to balance, but I think from our perspective, we're very appreciative of how the OEMs reacted. ... We'll certainly see how it goes throughout the season, but we were really happy with them kind of buying in as we tried to make this happen for the series."