With Chase closing in, Hendrick foursome tests at New Hampshire

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With an eye on the looming Chase for the Sprint Cup, Hendrick Motorsports tested yesterday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which will host the second of the 10 Chase races in late September.

Chmapionship leader Jimmie Johnson, who rallied from dead last on the grid to finish sixth earlier this summer at NHMS, admitted that saving one of their allotted tests for this time of year makes for “a big workload” but maintained that it was the right strategy.

“Everybody has to work a lot harder and maybe enter the Chase a little overworked and not as fresh as some other years,” Johnson said according to a transcript provided by Hendrick Motorsports.

“But, strategically, when we look at laying out our test sessions it makes total sense if all four cars are in a good place with points, to save our tests for Chase tracks. That’s what we’ve elected to do.”

One of the other Hendrick drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., echoed Johnson’s sentiments.

“If we are fortunate enough to make the Chase, [New Hampshire] is one of the important races in the Chase, so we’re trying to get off to a good start and the race is real key,” he said.

With four regular season races left on the Cup calendar, Johnson has already clinched a Chase spot and Earnhardt remains in decent shape at sixth in the championship. But teammates Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon took some damage to their Chase hopes after both of their runs last Sunday at Watkins Glen ended with wrecks.

Kahne may have two wins in his back pocket, but after getting crashed out at the Glen, he fell from the Top 10 into one of the two Wild Card spots. Considering how tight the battle has been for those particular positions, that’s probably not a situation he’d like to be in.

Gordon, on the other hand, has it even worse. He’s winless so far in 2013, and dropped to 13th in the championship after his early incident last Sunday. At New Hampshire, he acknowledged his rocky season but is refusing to give up.

“That’s why we’re here and that’s why we’ll be [testing] in Richmond next week,” he said. “But we’re going to work hard and get everything we can. So the approach is still the same; we go week to week, trying to get the best finish we can, whether we’re in the Chase or not in the Chase.

“We know if we accomplish what we set out to do every week, we’ll make it in the Chase. That’s all we can do right now.”

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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