Mark Martin leads “Happy Hour” at Fontana

Leave a comment

Mark Martin led a Toyota sweep of the top three positions during final practice for tomorrow’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, posting a top lap at 183.351 mph in the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Camry. Martin, who ran 30 laps in “Happy Hour” and is slated to start ninth in the 200-lap race for the Sprint Cup Series, came out ahead of MWR teammate Clint Bowyer (182.945) and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth (182.839).

Jimmie Johnson was the fastest Chevrolet driver in the session, going fourth-quickest (182.417). Current Cup standings leader Brad Keselowski was fifth-quickest (182.375) to lead the Ford contingent.

Bristol winner Kasey Kahne was P6 in the practice, with A.J. Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya rounding out the Top 10. Pole sitter Denny Hamlin was 11th-quickest.

While Kenseth brought Toyota their 50th Sprint Cup win at Las Vegas, he and the rest of the Toyota gang face some pressure this weekend at Fontana. Toyota’s American operations are based in Torrance, Calif., a hour or so west of Auto Club Speedway. In addition, Toyota Racing Development (which provides engines for MWR and JGR) makes Orange County home.

The manufacturer has won eight consecutive Nationwide Series events at ACS going into this weekend and also has a 2001 Champ Car win there thanks to Cristiano da Matta, but they’ve never won a Sprint Cup race at its “home” track.

Still, Bowyer is confident that a victory in SoCal is coming.

“I think this is a track that Toyota is going to win at soon,” Bowyer told NASCAR.com’s David Caraviello.  “Our speeds are fast with our Toyotas on these big race tracks.

“A Toyota won at the only mile-and-a-half we’ve had so far — that speed will carry over, I believe, on this race track. There’s several of us that run well here as teams and drivers and our equipment is certainly second to none, so we’ll be just fine.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

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.

Follow@KyleMLavigne