Kentucky has been “Keselowski Country”

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Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski is still looking for his first win of 2013, but Kentucky Speedway – site of tonight’s 400-miler for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – has been very good to him recently.

Last night, Keselowski took the checkered flag in the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ event on the 1.5-mile oval, which should give him confidence as he seeks to defend his Quaker State 400 title. His Cup win last year at Kentucky triggered a strong run of seven consecutive Top-10 finishes, which propelled him into the Chase and sent him off toward his championship.

This time around, Keselowski is once again trying to stabilize his Chase chances after a rough stretch that has seen him post just one Top-10 result in the last eight races. He currently sits ninth in the standings, but a victory would go a long way in making sure he’ll have the chance to contend for a second Cup title.

And anytime Keselowski hits the track at Kentucky, a victory is a legitimate possibility. He has finished in the Top-10 in both of Kentucky’s Cup races, leading a combined total of 147 laps in those events.

To him, his experience on the 1.5-mile oval across both the Cup and Nationwide series has been critical to his success there.

“I think one of the things I like about Kentucky is that it is one of the few tracks that I have always felt kind of heads up to the field,” Keselowski said on Friday.” I guess to elaborate on that, this is my fourth full year in Sprint Cup and in some ways, it feels like I have been here forever and in some ways, it feels like I haven’t.

“When you go to tracks like Texas and Atlanta and places like that where there are a fair amount of drivers with more experience than I do, I always feel like I am that one little step behind. Here at Kentucky, there is no driver that has more experience than me. We are on an even footing all the way. In fact, if anything, I feel like I might be slightly up because I have a couple more Nationwide starts and so forth. I think that leads to some of my comfort here.”

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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