Ten with Townsend: Long Beach and Brazil debrief

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It’s been a busy few weeks for NBC Sports Network IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell. Not only has he called the first four races of the season, but he’s also raced twice in the American Le Mans Series with the West/Alex Job Racing/Boardwalk Ferrari team and done TV work for NBC’s Stadium Super Trucks coverage.

Oh, and he got his Indianapolis 500 deal done too. Bell will race the No. 60 Sunoco and “Turbo” movie entry for Panther Racing.

With all that out of the way, Bell still had time to provide some insights from the last two IndyCar races at Long Beach and Brazil. It’s the latest installment of MotorSportsTalk’s “Ten with Townsend” series (see St. Petersburg and Barber debriefs linked here).

-Before we get to Brazil, how excited are you to have your Panther deal done for the 500, and what will it mean to you to get to work with JR Hildebrand and Oriol Servia?

I’m super pumped. I’m really looking forward to working with both of them. They both get around Indy very well and I expect we’ll have great cars.  It helps having driven for Panther (2004 and 2005) and DRR (2008 and 2011) in the past.

-Brazil: Where does it rank among races you’ve seen? What was it like for you to call those final laps?

It’s the best IndyCar street race I can recall! It was a lot of fun in the booth, and I had a hard time not letting a few holy expletives slip out!

-You said on the broadcast, basically, that now the gloves are off in terms of defending vs. blocking. Do you see that as a positive for the series where officialdom doesn’t interfere?

I expect the drivers will be quite vocal about consistency. How are we supposed to know where the line is if it’s always moving?

-What does it say about Hinch in that he knew how to read Sato’s moves and then be able to pull off a move as he did?

I think it shows his maturity to patiently take care of his tires while the tow in front went at it.  Sato did a great job to try and hang on but he was out of grip by that last lap.

-On Sato (pictured): Regardless of whether he was or wasn’t blocking, with a win and second place, how impressive has he and team been in the last two races?

They have been terrific, but you could see their improvement coming last year.  The fact that they are putting it all together over a race weekend is impressive. The pieces were all there but sometimes they just need to be strung together.  Conor Daly should be excited.

-Through four races, do you feel that the other teams have caught up to Penske and Ganassi, do you think they’ve regressed, or just had poor luck?

It’s a little of both. With a spec car it’s more difficult to find those advantages these days. The benefits of that are debatable.

-Most improved at Brazil? Biggest disappointment?

(Josef) Newgarden was great.  It was nice to see him get a solid top-five and charging for a win.

(Tony) Kanaan.  He worked so hard despite the pain and came up short thru no fault of his own. He is the ultimate warrior, and he’ll be strong at Indy, I’m sure.

-Now as we head into the month of May, do you anticipate the same teams will be strong or does moving to ovals shift it back to the power teams?

Man, it seems like the whole field is strong… seriously.

-At Long Beach, how did you balance the commitments of TV and also racing in ALMS? What did you learn about the track from racing that you could translate to the broadcast?

That plus frantically trying to get my Indy 500 deal lined up?  I’m lucky to have some patient employers who share my passion for racing.

The nuances of the race track help me anticipate what might happen during the race.  My broadcast instincts are sharpened.

-And lastly, how the hell did you survive the GoPro course preview with Wally’s shenanigans?

When he blinded me with silly string during an opposite lock drift…..I was convinced NBC was going to be the proud owner a highly modified Corvette!

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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