Rain could throw damper on St. Pete strategy

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Honda teams were back on pace in Sunday’s morning warmup for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, powering eight of the top 10 runners. Only Ryan Hunter-Reay, who led the session, and Panther Racing’s JR Hildebrand interrupted the sweep.

But all things being equal, conditions were vastly different this morning to the rest of the weekend. Ambient temperatures have only been in the 70s but the track temperature has ranged from the mid-80s to as high as 97. This morning saw temps at 71 ambient, 76 track, and with 100 percent humidity.

It appears the Chevrolet is at an advantage, if only slightly, under normal weather circumstances. But if rain falls for today’s race, as has been projected all week, the dynamic changes entirely.

NBC Sports Network pit reporter Jon Beekhuis estimates, for a dry race, that pit stop windows will fall from laps 11-32 (first stop), 44-65 (second) and 77-98 (third) for the 110 lap race.

With a full fuel stop, times on pit road should be 24.5 seconds from pit in to pit out, Beekhuis projects. A gap roughly around 30 seconds could net a driver enough time to pit, make his or her stop, and resume on track without losing the position.

Will Power starts from pole ahead of Takuma Sato and Simona de Silvestro for Sunday’s race. Coverage begins live at noon ET on NBC Sports Network, with a 12:40 p.m. green flag.

The starting grid with designated starting tire, if dry, is below.

IZOD IndyCar Series – Honda GP of St. Petersburg

Starting Lineup

Row 1

12-Will Power (Alternate)
14-Takuma Sato (Alternate)

Row 2

78-Simona de Silvestro (Alternate)
27-James Hinchcliffe (Alternate)

Row 3

3-Helio Castroneves (Alternate)
55-Tristan Vautier (Alternate)

Row 4

25-Marco Andretti (Primary)
1-Ryan Hunter-Reay (Primary)

Row 5

6-Sebastian Saavedra (Alternate)
10-Dario Franchitti (Alternate)

Row 6

11-Tony Kanaan (Alternate)
22-Oriol Servia (Primary)

Row 7

19-Justin Wilson (Alternate)
83-Charlie Kimball (Primary)

Row 8

15-Graham Rahal (Primary)
67-Josef Newgarden (Alternate)

Row 9

98-Alex Tagliani (Alternate)
16-James Jakes (Primary)

Row 10

77-Simon Pagenaud (Alternate)
9-Scott Dixon (Primary)

Row 11

7-Sebastien Bourdais (Primary)
5-EJ Viso (Primary)

Row 12

20-Ed Carpenter (Alternate)
4-JR Hildebrand (Alternate)

Row 13

18-Ana Beatriz (Alternate)

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.

Follow@KyleMLavigne