Chase pressure mounting for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2 Comments

A crash and a flat tire in the last two races have knocked Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the clutches of the ongoing battle among multiple drivers to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

With Earnhardt still winless in 2013 and only 20 points ahead of 11th-place Wild Card holder Kasey Kahne (two wins), his grip on a post-season berth is loosening at the worst possible time.

Before he suffered his tire failure at Michigan – which relegated him to a 36th-place finish – Earnhardt had expressed confidence that he and his team would be where they needed to be when the regular season ended.

But with three races remaining before the Chase, it appears that NASCAR’s most popular driver is getting at least a little troubled about the matter.

“You definitely don’t like to be in this situation,” Earnhardt said according to NASCAR.com while testing at Richmond International Raceway, home to the final race of the regular season, earlier this week.

“I don’t think anybody wants to be on the bubble or be even worried or concerned about points leading up to Richmond, so we hope to have a couple of good weeks and really put ourselves in a pretty comfortable situation before we even come into Richmond.”

Earnhardt, who starts 19th in tonight’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, figures that the 500-lap race will come down to being able to hang on to the top end of the grid as the night progresses.

“It’s just going to be a very competitive race,” he said yesterday. “Everybody runs the same speed. It’s just going to be whoever can be up front and get track position.”

And, of course, stay out of the mayhem that so often pays a visit to Bristol. Should Earnhardt get caught in a pile-up or run into another form of trouble on the tight half-mile, then the pressure already on him to make the Chase will only grow further.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

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.

Follow@KyleMLavigne