Gutsy gamble pays off for Matt Kenseth in Kentucky

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After taking the lead following a fuel-only stop with 25 laps to go, Matt Kenseth capitalized on track position – and a spin off the penultimate restart by the dominant Jimmie Johnson – to win the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

A crash involving Brian Vickers brought out the yellow with 27 laps left and on the subsequent stops, crew chief Jason Ratcliff made the decision not to give Kenseth any fresh tires. He led the race off pit road over Johnson, who had chosen to take right-side tires on his last stop of the afternoon.

Kenseth and Johnson led the field to the green on Lap 246, but while Kenseth pulled away, Johnson fell back and then spun out in Turn 2. The field was able to avoid the five-time Sprint Cup champion, who immediately called for Kenseth to be penalized for what he saw as him slowing the restart.

The penalty never came however, and Kenseth held onto the lead through one last restart before going on to his fourth victory of the season and his third on 1.5-mile tracks. Johnson, who led 182 laps on the day, wound up finishing ninth after restarting 25th following the spin.

Kenseth jokingly said that at the time, he thought Ratcliff was “slightly crazy” for the fuel-only call, but was happy with the results.

“Jason did a great job – I didn’t think there was any way we were gonna hold on for that win,” Kenseth told TNT in Victory Lane. “He made the right call at the right time and the guys got it done.”

Ratcliff said that he thought Kenseth would be tough to beat if he could get to the front.

“I knew if we could get Matt position, he would make a good fight at it and he obviously did,” he explained. “Thankfully, we got a couple good restarts there…I knew [the pit stop] was going to be our only shot to get it done today and with the position we’re in right now with the 20 car – we’ve had some success at the start of the season – we can take some shots like this.”

Jamie McMurray was closing in on Kenseth in the closing laps, but ran out of time and finished seven-tenths of a second back. However, his strong runner-up performance marks his first Top-5 result since August of 2011 at Bristol Motor Speedway, when he finished fifth. Clint Bowyer finished in third, with Joey Logano and Kyle Busch rounding out the Top 5 at the checkered flag.

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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