Preview: Firestone Indy Lights Series

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The Firestone Indy Lights Series, the final step on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, is already at a crossroads in terms of public opinion and reaction before it’s even raced its first event of 2013.

A scant nine cars, tied for the fewest in the series’ history since its new incarnation as the Infiniti Pro Series in 2002 (Milwaukee, 2004) are entered for the opening round of the 2013 season. The biggest issue the series dealt with in the offseason was the announced delay of its new car, projected to debut in 2014, that would replace the current Dallara chassis used since this series started in 2002.

No doubt the future of the series will be discussed as the year goes on, and what can be done to improve its feasibility (costs and car, mainly). Still, to the series’ credit, at least half if not two-thirds of the drivers entered have a legitimate chance at winning a race this year.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – long the standard-bearer in Indy Lights having won the last three titles and a total of six – enter with three rookies in their cars. None are slouches as they are the top three finishers from the 2012 Star Mazda Series, champion Jack Hawksworth, runner-up Gabby Chaves and American Sage Karam.

And the other stat SPM has going for them is that each of their champions the last three years – JK Vernay, Josef Newgarden and Tristan Vautier – has won on debut in St. Petersburg to kick off their championship charge. The challenge for any of SPM’s three this year is to keep the streak alive.

Andretti Autosport boasts the only driver with a prior Indy Lights win in the field – Colombian Carlos Munoz in his second season. Munoz won twice a year ago and represents Andretti’s best chance of wresting the title back from Schmidt’s squad. Rookie Zach Veach steps up from Star Mazda and could score a win if the cards fall right, but will probably need until the second half of the season to truly establish himself.

Belardi Auto Racing and Team Moore field two cars apiece, but of that quartet only Peter Dempsey (Belardi) seems a likely winner. One of the series’ fastest and most aggressive drivers, the Irishman finally has a proper full-season effort after two stop-start seasons. The other trio (Jorge Goncalvez, Belardi and Moore’s Juan Pablo Garcia and Ethan Ringel) are unlikely to challenge the top runners.

The first round of the Firestone Indy Lights Series season airs Sunday at 11:00 a.m. EST on the NBC Sports Network.

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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