Consistent Castroneves seeks a Toronto breakthrough

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Helio Castroneves is putting together another consistent season, as he continues his quest for his elusive first IZOD IndyCar Series championship with Team Penske.

In 11 races, the series points leader has 10 top-10 finishes and a win at Texas. But he needs to keep pushing heading into the Honda Indy Toronto (3 p.m. ET Saturday and Sunday on NBC Sports Network) if he wants to hold off the surge of Andretti Autosport drivers behind him. Ryan Hunter-Reay currently sits second, 23 points back.

“Whenever you’re leading the championship, when it’s by 1 point or 100 points, it’s always good news,” Castroneves said Tuesday in a teleconference. “Of course, we still have a long way, eight more races to go, a lot of points in the game. We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing because right now, it’s keeping us up there.”

Toronto has been something of a bogey track for Castroneves. In eight prior starts, he has only two top-10 finishes, with a best result of sixth last year.

“The Toronto track is a traditional place, very, very tight,” he said. “The track is very technical, as well. Plus we’re going to be standing start (for Race 1), so it’s also another trick, something else for us to think about. But in the end of the day, we know what we need to do. Hopefully we put ourselves in good qualifying so we can start at the front.”

Until his win in Edmonton last year, his first in Canada in 15 years in the top level of open-wheel racing, Castroneves and controversy in Canada went together like a box of Timbits and a “double-double.”

In 2009 at Toronto, he and native son Paul Tracy collided out of Turn 3 when battling for the lead, and Castroneves exited his car to a chorus of boos. That prompted apologies.

But Castroneves had every right to feel aggrieved a year later in Edmonton, when he took a defensive line on a restart while leading Will Power and Scott Dixon, but was then called for blocking by then-IndyCar race director Brian Barnhart.

Castroneves, irate, leapt from his car and stormed after IndyCar security chief Charles Burns, grabbing Burns’ chest. Burns was more amused by the reaction than frustrated, since Burns is a seriously large individual.

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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