NASCAR not just losing Hamlin, but his buzz

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Denny Hamlin’s being out of action for at least six weeks is a greater loss than just his driving ability. Hamlin’s been in the eye of the media storm since before the green flag even dropped at this year’s Daytona 500.

Hamlin told The Dan Patrick Show on the eve of Daytona that Danica Patrick, had, in fact, garnered too much media attention given her results. But the attention she brought to the series was a net positive.

After Daytona, when Patrick won the pole and finished eighth, Hamlin and his now former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano began their budding rivalry. Hamlin wasn’t pleased with Logano’s moving around the track, not holding his line, in his Penske Racing debut.

A tweet addressed to Brad Keselowski from Hamlin read, “sorry I couldn’t get close to you cuz your genius teammate was too busy messing up the inside line 1 move at a time.” Clint Bowyer responded momentarily saying “2nd that,” while Logano later responded, “I remember when you were MY genius teammate. #LoveYouMeanIt.”

The year of Hamlin’s opinions, barely controversial although they were viewed that way in NASCAR’s eyes, continued after Phoenix when he said the series’ new Generation 6 cars had some ways to go to match the old cars in competitive terms. Hamlin was fined $25,000 by NASCAR for comments detrimental to the sport.

There was Bristol, where Hamlin spun Logano as Logano chased Jeff Gordon for the lead.

Finally, there’s this latest course of action where his contact with Logano has left him sidelined with a broken vertebrae. It’s the second straight year where an injury has taken a major star out of the sport (Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat out two races after suffering a concussion incurred at Talladega).

It’s also, in an amazing stat reported by the Sporting News’ Bob Pockrass, the first time in 21 years of JGR in NASCAR that a driver has been forced out due to injury. In 2011, Kyle Busch was suspended for the fall Nationwide and Sprint Cup races at Texas, and Michael McDowell subbed for him in the latter event.

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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