Wilson will race the Glen, and might have a new IndyCar teammate

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson has a pair of new drivers he’ll be working with this week. One is an official co-driver and another could become his teammate at DCR later this year.

Wilson will spend his off weekend from his IZOD IndyCar Series commitments in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series’ Sahlen’s Six Hours at the Glen race at Watkins Glen International. He’ll rejoin Michael Shank Racing, the team in which he won the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona and finished third this year, to co-drive the rebuilt No. 6 Ford Riley Daytona Prototype with Gustavo Yacaman.

“Mike has a great group of guys so it will just be like seeing some old friends again, and we can just pick up where we left off at Daytona,” Wilson said in a release. “I’ve never raced in the Six Hour, so this is a great opportunity. I’m grateful that Mike rang me to help him out this weekend.”

Wilson scored Coyne’s first IndyCar win at Watkins Glen in 2009. He replaces Antonio Pizzonia in the car, as team owner Shank cited sponsorship issues for the Brazilian.

“Unfortunately Antonio’s group had some sponsorship challenges, so we needed to develop a new plan for this weekend,” Shank said in a release. “It is a shame, as Antonio is a true talent, and we really appreciated his efforts – he was quick right from the start for us.”

For the second race in a row, Shank’s crew has performed an incredible rebuilding effort on one of its DPs to ensure it made it to the next race. The team’s lead No. 60 was fixed after an accident in Detroit, and after Yacaman had an early accident and fire in Mid-Ohio, the team has managed to put the No. 6 back together for Watkins Glen.

Meanwhile Wilson is currently at Mid-Ohio alongside James Davison, the Australian who is performing his second IndyCar test and first in the Dallara DW12 in Coyne’s second car. Davison is fairly quick and has two Firestone Indy Lights Series race wins at Mid-Ohio in consecutive years.

He hasn’t raced in a series full-time since 2009, when he finished second in the Indy Lights series behind JR Hildebrand and ahead of 10 drivers who eventually made their IndyCar debuts (Sebastian Saavedra, Wade Cunningham, James Hinchcliffe, Mario Romancini, Ana Beatriz, Charlie Kimball, Martin Plowman, Pippa Mann, Jay Howard, Dillon Battistini).

Coyne’s notorious for naming his second driver as late as possible before a race weekend, but a good test today could go a little way in ensuring Davison joins that list of drivers stepping up to a race seat. Stefan Wilson has also tested for Coyne this year in hopes of securing a debut race in IndyCar.

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