Dale Coyne Racing driver Justin Wilson of Britain celebrates with his crew after qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Dale Coyne’s team an underdog to watch Sunday at Indy

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If Honda can find the race pace and fuel mileage gains similar to what propelled it to victory in last year’s Indianapolis 500, there’s a number of its teams that could pull off a surprise.

When you think Honda, you immediately think of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. The other teams in Honda’s stable include two other Ganassi cars, Bryan Herta’s Barracuda Racing, A.J. Foyt Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Dale Coyne Racing, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, and Sam Schmidt’s three-car team (Schmidt Peterson, Schmidt Hamilton, and Schmidt Peterson Pelfrey).

Dale Coyne’s team probably doesn’t jump out at you on that list as a possible win contender. But it should.

Justin Wilson has found his footing on ovals in the last couple years, with a solid seventh place finish in two of the last three Indianapolis 500s, and of course, his win at Texas Motor Speedway last June. He can corral a car limited on downforce with the best of them.

Come this year, Wilson put in the second fastest qualifying effort for a Honda (14th on the grid), and seems to have the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America/Sonny’s BBQ entry close on race trim downforce levels.

“We were not quite where we want to be just yet with the car in race trim, but we’ll have another chance on Friday to keep working on it,” Wilson said in a release. “We had a strong car late in the race last year and that’s the objective this week, to have a good balance so we can be competitive when it counts on Sunday.”

Teammates Ana Beatriz (No. 18 Ipiranga) and Pippa Mann (No. 63 Cyclops Gear) – and you’ll hear more from them later this week on MotorSportsTalk – are each in the tenth row of the grid after qualifying on Bump Day. This year marks Beatriz’s fourth 500 start and Mann’s second.

Mann described the nature of life in the hot seat during qualifying weekend in her latest diary for RACER Magazine. A sample of how focused a driver has to be during this period comes during the traditional post-qualifying picture after a driver’s first run.

“When you know the first run was not what you were looking for, cracking a smile for the cameras that actually looks genuine is much more of a tall order than you would think!” she wrote. “Your brain is already back with your engineer, wanting to analyze the data the moment the car is out of post qualifying tech, and find out what was going on.”

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Ryan Hunter-Reay
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the Verizon IndyCar Series field. Finishing sixth in 2015 after a late rally was Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda

  • 2014: 6th Place, 3 Wins, 1 Pole, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 195 Laps Led, 10.2 Avg. Start, 10.9 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 6th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 3rd, 3 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 71 Laps Led, 12.2 Avg. Start, 10.4 Avg. Finish

The old adage “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” would probably be the best way to sum up Ryan Hunter-Reay’s 2015 season, which until the final quarter of season could best be described as a forgettable nightmare.

The first three races seemed somewhat OK, with eighth, seventh and fourth place grid spots. But none of the three produced a result of note; Hunter-Reay was also caught up in the three-car, late race accident at NOLA Motorsports Park and didn’t bank any good finish until a fifth place at Barber the end of April.

A tailspin followed. Hunter-Reay started between 14th and 21st every race between the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Milwaukee – a stretch of eight races – and only had one top-10 finish in that stint, eighth at the rain-affected lottery that was Detroit race two. Some seasons are just ones you want to end and by Milwaukee it was obvious that Hunter-Reay was racing just to get to the end of the year, without things getting any worse.

Things finally came good with a typically good drive at Iowa and arguably one of the drives of his career, two races later at Pocono, to end with two wins and extend his streak of winning a race in each of his six seasons at Andretti Autosport. It was no coincidence, either, that Hunter-Reay’s uptick in form came with the return of the late Justin Wilson’s presence in a fourth car.

After Pocono, Hunter-Reay also drove well to finish second at Sonoma, and by that point he’d completed an incredible late-season turnaround to jump from 14th to sixth in points. But if asked, he’d probably admit this was his toughest season yet at Andretti and arguably his toughest overall since his 2009 season, when he was in-between full-time rides and saw out the year with Vision Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.