Danica Patrick keeps expectations in check

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Despite a successful Daytona 500, Danica Patrick remains focused on a steady build-up to becoming an everyday contender in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Patrick became the first female to lead “The Great American Race” and was a threat for the win before having to settle for an eighth-place finish. But the Stewart-Haas Racing rookie knows that she still has a lot to learn before she can run in the lead pack on a consistent basis.

“I think that would be unwise to sort of start telling myself that Top 10 is where we need to be every week,” she said last Sunday at Daytona. “I think that’s setting up for failure. The list of drivers in the Cup series is deep. Daytona is a unique track. These tracks are different and unique — a lot about the car. I mean, you have to be smart enough to do the right thing at the right time. But it’s very much about the car.

“I feel like I’m still sticking to ‘Let’s see how these first five races go where we go to a bunch of different kinds of tracks, see where we settle in.’ Then start to establish goals from there on out.”

Patrick certainly made headlines last weekend in the ‘500’ with her great drive. But she must prove that she can remain competitive across the short and intermediate (1.5 to 2-mile) tracks that make up the bulk of the Sprint Cup schedule.

She can get started on that this weekend at the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway, where she has experience dating back to her IndyCar days. However, the majority of her experience at PIR is in stock cars; she has five career Nationwide Series starts at the “Desert Jewel” (best finish of 10th) and finished 17th in her first Cup run there last fall.

In the meantime, Patrick is sticking with her game plan and also looking to add on the foundation of her efforts in 2012.

“The only thing we can go off of is at the end of last year and running solid inside that Top 20, hopefully get inside that Top 15,” she said.

“That’s really all I can think right now…It might change after five races. It might be better. Who knows? It might be worse. We’re going to kind of pick up where we left off.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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