Stenhouse scores first career Cup pole at Atlanta

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While he’s regularly been in the news thanks to his relationship with fellow Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has had a relatively quiet rookie campaign on the track.

But on Friday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he made some noise by taking the pole for Sunday’s Advocare 500 as part of a 1-2 performance in qualifying for Roush Fenway Racing.

Stenhouse threw down a lap at 189.688 miles per hour in the No. 17 Ford to notch his first career Cup pole. Joining him on the front row for Sunday will be the man he knocked off for the honor – his RFR teammate, Carl Edwards, who turned in a lap at 189.021 mph.

While quick not to take it as a sign of progression in his inaugural Cup campaign, Stenhouse feels that he and his team are starting to find a rhythm in a season that has yet to see them earn a Top-10 finish.

“It’s a fast lap on Friday – there’s no doubt about it, it doesn’t translate and doesn’t automatically go into the race,” said Stenhouse. “We’ve got 500 miles here, but I do feel like the last few weeks we’ve been a lot better than we were at the beginning of the year.

“…I’ve learned a lot this year and it’s not fun not running up front and being consistently in the top 10 and top 5, but that’s still our goal.”

Edwards had taken to the high line on his qualifying run, which appeared to be the fast way around the 1.5-mile oval – until Stenhouse managed to beat him by running on the bottom in his attempt.

“I give Ricky a lot of credit for not changing his line after seeing how fast we were on top,” said Edwards. “That’s really tough to stick to your guns and stick to what you know, so he did a great job.”

Juan Pablo Montoya was third-fastest and will be joined on Row 2 by Denny Hamlin, who is competing with a sprained right thumb he sustained in the same crash last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway that broke the wrist of Martin Truex Jr.

Jeff Gordon and Bristol winner Matt Kenseth make up Row 3, followed by Truex and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Row 4, and Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson in Row 5.

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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