Pagenaud seems primed for first Indy win in Long Beach

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Long Beach has featured many magical moments in its near 40-year race history, and in the last few years, Simon Pagenaud has delivered some new additions to that race log.

In 2010, Pagenaud pushed a down-on-power HPD prototype past a Lola Aston Martin V12 driven by Adrian Fernandez for the overall win in the American Le Mans Series race. Just last year, Pagenaud ran a three-stop strategy to near perfection in the IndyCar race, all but hunting down Will Power with a series of laps at qualifying pace and coming up just shy of his first series win.

It’s not the results for Pagenaud – he finished just behind third-placed James Hinchcliffe in his first North American race, the Formula Atlantic event in 2006, and has another ALMS win in 2009 – but the atmosphere and nature of the track that makes Long Beach so special.

“Long Beach is a very special place to me,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I know I love the rhythm, how it feels with my race car. I love the level of attack you need to have. I don’t love it because of the results, but I do with how it feels.”

Pagenaud’s 2013 has gotten off to a mixed start; exhaust issues sidelined him at St. Pete but he and the Schmidt Hamilton team bounced back in Barber with sixth. There’s been less testing compared to last year, but the addition of Tristan Vautier has aided his progress with more data.

“I’m enjoying his data,” Pagenaud said. “From how he drives, it’s similar in many ways, but the differences will make me stronger. It’s the same for him. He’s a really good driver. The big thing is Tristan doesn’t want to focus too much on setup, but I think he’s plenty on the pace.”

The competition level is pleasing too, but in Pagenaud’s estimation, could be further enhanced if IndyCar adopts more horsepower for its engines. Honda and Chevrolet, too, are razor close.

“You really have to be on the whole time, because one little mistake and you’re 20th on the grid,” he said. “At Barber it happened to a few of us.

“What I take out of it, is we need more power to differentiate a little bit of quality. At the moment, it’s so close in part because there’s not much power as there should be. The ratio of grip to power is too small.”

Power – Will that is – is a guy Pagenaud will need to get through to secure his first IndyCar win, but I wouldn’t put it past him to do so on a circuit where he has enjoyed so much success in years past.

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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