Standoff between Toyota and NASCAR

Engines, engines, engines. It's all about engines this weekend, to hear drivers and engine men tell it, now that shifting is no longer an option around this road-course type high-speed track.

Then again, as loopy as qualifying yesterday was for today's Pocono 500, with so many big guns mired back in the pack, on a track where passing may be tougher than usual, there is an ominous feeling about what is about to unfold. Particularly in light of how these guys had such a difficult time adjusting to the new lines around Humpy Wheeler's Charlotte track just two weeks ago.

And there are threatening clouds over the NASCAR trailer, where the unexpectedly swift and sudden death of NASCAR's proposed and intricately documented "engine of the future" appears to be a major triumph for Ford.

Ford guys Jack Roush and Robert Yates were never high on the project to begin with, and pointed out the great cost involved in throwing everything away and starting all over in time for the 2007 season.

The decision by Mike Helton, NASCAR's president, to put the new engine on the back burner isn't setting well a bit with General Motors. But the most curious aspect of Helton's surprising decision is that he is now, according to industry sources, telling Toyota officials they will have to come up with a new engine design if they want to move up from the Truck tour to either Busch or Nextel Cup.

Toyota had a Busch program planned for 2006, according to Detroit sources. NASCAR has been expected to run secret tests to evaluate the new Toyota against Ford, GM and Dodge models, both on the track and in the wind tunnel.

But now NASCAR's push for Toyota to come up with a new engine, rather than use a version of the NASCAR Truck engine its teams have been running, appears to have become a major stumbling block. It could lead to a standoff between NASCAR and Toyota.

Toyota's ace in the hole in all this is its considerable TV ad-buying power. Toyota is spending about $100 million a year in the Indy Racing League, and there is widespread speculation that Toyota may follow Chevrolet and pull out of that series.

So while Helton fiddles with the technical details of keeping the four carmakers relatively happy, NASCAR CEO Brian France is working the other end of the financial equation – putting together a big new TV package, in which 30-second ad-buying power could be significant leverage. Winston-Salem Journal

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