Chase hopeful Jeff Gordon takes Cup pole at Richmond

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Jeff Gordon set another new track record for NASCAR’s Generation-6 machines this afternoon at Richmond International Raceway, and will start on the pole for tomorrow’s Federated Auto Parts 400.

The battle under the lights will be the last shot Gordon has to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In order to make the post-season, the winless Gordon – who currently sits 11th in points – needs to either climb into the Top-10 in the Sprint Cup standings or take a victory tomorrow night to grab a Wild Card berth.

Gordon (130.599 mph) will be joined on the front row by Kurt Busch, the driver that is currently 10th in the standings at six points ahead of the four-time Cup champion. Busch turned in a lap at 130.334 mph, as he looks to get his single-car Furniture Row Racing team into the Chase.

Row 2 will feature reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who needs a win to stand any hope of making the Chase, and Clint Bowyer. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin will make up Row 3, followed by Jamie McMurray and Joey Logano in Row 4.

Filling in for Jimmie Johnson after the birth of his second child this morning was Regan Smith, who qualified Johnson’s No. 48 machine in 10th place. However, Johnson will still have to start tomorrow night’s race from the rear of the field.

For those especially keeping an eye on the Chase hopefuls, here’s where they’ll be on the grid for tomorrow at RIR:

Jeff Gordon (11th in standings, no wins) – 1st
Kurt Busch (10th in standings, no wins) – 2nd
Brad Keselowski (15th in standings, no wins) – 3rd
Jamie McMurray (16th in standings, no wins) – 7th
Joey Logano (eighth in standings, one win) – 8th
Greg Biffle (ninth in standings, one win) – 9th
Martin Truex Jr. (13th in standings, one win, Wild Card) – 11th
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (seventh in standings, no wins) – 14th
Paul Menard (17th in standings, no wins) – 22nd
Ryan Newman (14th in standings, one win) – 24th

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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