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· Toyota Fanboy
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It may have seemed difficult to get in touch with head engine builder Mark Cronquist of Joe Gibbs Racing during the recent offseason, but that was only if you didn't know what time to attempt contacting him.
The ideal hours for that were between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., when he could be found sifting through e-mails and phone messages, and otherwise simply doing some necessary solitary thinking behind his desk at the JGR shop.
In January, team president J.D. Gibbs called Cronquist "maybe the busiest man in motorsports." That's because Cronquist was in charge of making sure the switch from the Chevrolet engines JGR had been running previously to the Toyota engines they will run in 2008 went smoothly.
It has not been an easy task, to say the least.
"This was the worst offseason I personally have had in a long time," Cronquist admitted. "Just because it was trying to get the pieces and the parts and where they go and what they are, and a part number to go with them ... just so I can give to my guys [the JGR engine assemblers] what I need to give to 'em, you know?"
It required long hours.
"I was coming to work at 3 or 4 in the morning and working until 5 or 6 at night most nights. And that's Saturdays, too," Cronquist said.
The offseason is always busy for any organization fielding Cup teams, but this one was made even more so for Cronquist because of the JGR manufacturer switch. He said that the engineers and other folks at Toyota Racing Development were eager to work with JGR, and vice versa, which made for a good flow of information back and forth.
But sometimes, it was almost too much of a flood of information for Cronquist to handle.
"It was a little overwhelming at times for me," said Cronquist, a native of Eagle River, Alaska, who got hooked on racing as a youth while watching his father race snowmobiles. "It's like they do so much on the Toyota side and have so much going on, sometimes I just needed to say, 'Stop! Slow down. Let me digest some of this stuff. Let me get caught up.' Because I've got my side going on and their side going on, and it's all coming right at me."
Yet Cronquist said that the switch from the Chevy engine to Toyota isn't at all like the painstakingly slow development of the RO-7. That's because the Toyota engine was used at the Cup level last season by several other teams. Even though they experienced little success, the basic engine was there to be provided to JGR, along with data from those other teams that JGR could use to try to make it better.
"To me, the Toyota thing is good for us because they can go and develop something and we can go develop something," said Cronquist, who has headed up the JGR engine program since 1996. "Then we can come together and say, 'Hey, your valve spring is better. Maybe we'll put it in our motor.' And maybe we have some things, that they can look at it, too."
He said Chevy teams usually worked together only on future projects like the RO-7 and on durability engine issues. Otherwise, the teams worked independently of one another. He said he expects the Toyota teams, now that JGR is involved, to work together more to get better results overall.
With Speedweeks now upon Cronquist, the time to begin seeing how he and his engine assemblers have fared has arrived. But he said that he is more anxious to see how the new Toyota "open" engine fares in the second and third races of the year at California and Las Vegas than he is to see how the restrictor-plate variety performs at Daytona International Speedway in the season-opening event.
"California and Vegas. That's the motor man's nightmare. It's cold, it takes a lot of power, it's 500 miles with a big gear in the car. Those are tough ones on engines," he said.
Is he confident Toyota-powered JGR is ready to win some races?
"Talk to me after Las Vegas," Cronquist said. "I think so -- I hope so -- but the first couple of races will be the tell-tale sign here."
Success could mean more sleep for Cronquist, who is looking forward to cutting back on his hours at some point after weeks of arriving at the office in the middle of the night.
"I can get work done at 3 a.m. without people asking me questions," Cronquist said. "I had to come in early because during the daytime, it was guys going, 'What are we doing about this? What are we doing about that? What are we doing about this?' And a lot of it was [Toyota doing] things differently than we do things. We had to decide, are we going to do things their way or are we going to do it our way? That's what I did during the day, so I had to come in from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. or 7 just to answer e-mails and get some other stuff done without all that going on."
How they will do things going forward remains a work in progress.
"We see some good things," Cronquist said. "Our package turned out really well. [Toyota's] package seemed pretty good, too. Now we just got to take ours and theirs and kind of marry the two together and use the best of both of 'em, and see what we come up with there."
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