Unpredictability, first-time winners make IndyCar’s 2013 one of the best in years

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Here’s how unpredictable this 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season has been:

You have had four first-time winners – James Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato, Simon Pagenaud and Charlie Kimball – emerge from the pack and take the next step in their respective careers.

You had a guy in Mike Conway who was basically left for the IndyCar scrap heap after deciding, and bravely I might add, he didn’t want to race ovals anymore. Then he came into the most heavily derided car on the grid (Dale Coyne’s second car) without so much as a test day and kicked ass in Detroit.

And you have the championship rivals of 2010 and 2011 – the champion, Dario Franchitti and the challenger, Will Power – having gone winless thus far in 2013.

What do you make of the nature of this topsy-turvy season where predictions are about as reliable as a weatherman’s in the Midwest?

Is this level of parity, and unpredictability, good for IndyCar or is it a sign where the current car allows drivers who might not be considered top-shelf, top-caliber pilots to punch above their weight?

Those questions I’ll leave for the comments section. But speaking objectively, having followed this series since I grew up following IndyCar in the 1990s and having covered it since 2006, I have to rank this season top three in the last 20 years. And we haven’t even got to the climax of the final few race weekends yet.

The nature of this field – compared to Formula One’s for example – is that you have a legitimate 15 or so contenders on any given weekend, depending on the track. Nine different drivers from seven teams have won in the 14 races. Seventeen different drivers from nine teams have scored at least one podium finish. The ones who haven’t yet have threatened the establishment at at least one race this year.

And for once, to this point at least, you don’t have the political morass or B.S. of off-track attempting to weave its way in and interrupt the on-track product. Way too often, it seems the permeating stench of politics and agendas seeps into the paddock, leaving media, competitors and fans disgruntled.

When the worst things off-track are questions over aero kits and changing the engine formula to just twin-turbos, rather than the usual leadership tumult at the top, it’s not a bad year. There remain challenges going forward, as always, but the on-track product has quieted the angst for most of the year.

I tweeted after the Indianapolis 500 that when Tony Kanaan won, on a day he was reunited with three of his best friends, Franchitti, Max Papis and the incomparable Alex Zanardi in Victory Lane, that it felt like 1998 all over again.

These are the new glory days in IndyCar. Enjoy the ride.

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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