Hinchcliffe, de Silvestro due for big Long Beach weekends

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Two of the stars of the St. Petersburg IZOD IndyCar Series curtain-raiser figure to play heavily into the equation at this weekend’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, if history is any indication.

James Hinchcliffe’s Long Beach record includes a podium in his first Formula Atlantic start (2006), his first Indy Lights win (2009), his first IndyCar top-five (fourth in 2011) and first IndyCar podium (third last year) in the last seven years.

The Andretti Autosport driver and St. Pete winner seeks a bounce back after a frustrating early exit from Barber when a wheel went loose.

“It’s a track I’ve always enjoyed, and one where Andretti Autosport has a good history here too,” said Hinchcliffe. “Ryan (Hunter-Reay) and (Mike) Conway have won here. And I got the first Lights win, first IndyCar top-five and podium. The first pole would be nice? That would translate well.”

For KV Racing Technology’s Simona de Silvestro, Long Beach also holds a special place in her heart with her first Formula Atlantic win in 2008 – a win that was overshadowed as Danica Patrick won her first and only IndyCar race the same weekend, the other side of the world, in Motegi, Japan.

“Yeah, it’s always cool to be here, as it’s a real tricky place!” she said. “My IndyCar career has had some good weekends here and some miserable. Last year we actually had a strong car (probably her best with Lotus, after starting 17th) and with the things we learned at St. Pete, should be competitive. I always enjoy coming here.”

Both drivers noted the key to Sunday’s race will once again be tires, as Firestone is expected to bring the same primary and alternate compounds as was at St. Pete. Hinchcliffe’s managing his tires helped aid his victory, while de Silvestro fell off on the red alternates just shy of a podium finish.

“It depends when you use what compounds at what stage. You have to stay up on it,” said Hinchcliffe.

Both have had some fun this week too, Hinchcliffe with recent filming of a new GoDaddy spot with Patrick – Hinch estimated a full five minutes of footage was usable, only to be condensed to 30 seconds – while de Silvestro took in her first NHL hockey game Wednesday night, as the Anaheim Ducks played the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“I was very excited, but unfortunately they lost and Graham (Rahal’s) team won!” she admitted, reluctantly. “I was a bit frustrated about that. But they’re going to the playoffs, and that’s what counts.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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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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