Talladega Update: Johnson, Kenseth, Dale Jr. mixing it up

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As expected, the field has been constantly fluctuating today at Talladega Superspeedway in the Camping World RV Sales 500 – the sixth race of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

With the field lined up by first practice speeds after the rainout of qualifying on Saturday afternoon, Aric Almirola and Jeff Burton led the grid to the green flag at NASCAR’s biggest track under sunny skies.

On Lap 3, the first caution of the day emerged as Tony Raines suffered an engine problem. Many drivers – including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer – came down to pit road under the yellow to top off on fuel and make small adjustments to their cars.

The green came back out at Lap 8 with Almirola and Burton still leading the way. Burton’s train of cars on the high line propelled him to the lead shortly afterwards, with Chase leader Matt Kenseth following Burton into second position.

On Lap 11, the high line re-emerged for Kenseth, and with help from Kurt Busch and his Wonder Bread-themed homage to Talladega Nights, he pulled ahead of Burton on the low line for the point.

Greg Biffle and Joey Logano then rose up to mount a challenge against Kenseth as the race crossed the 25-lap mark. The leaders then settled into a single-file formation with two-lane racing continuing on toward the middle and rear of the pack.

Green flag stops began at Lap 41, with Kenseth abandoning the lead for service one lap later; Jimmie Johnson, one of Kenseth’s main rivals in the Chase, also pitted at Lap 42.

During the cycle, Kyle Busch was unable to cross over toward his pit box thanks to Jamie McMurray, forcing him to come back again to make his stop. Additionally, last week’s winner, Brad Keselowski, was hit with a drive-thru penalty for speeding on pit road.

When the cycle ended, the order shook out with Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. duking it out for the lead before Johnson assumed control and Earnhardt fell back slightly to around fourth.

On Lap 53, Denny Hamlin then took a brief turn at the front, with Johnson coming back to P1 on the next go-round. Earnhardt and Kenseth then came back to fight the No. 48.

The pack swallowed up Keselowski and put him a lap down at Lap 62. At this point, Johnson had fallen back and Kenseth had assumed the lead on the high line. He would then drop to the low line by Lap 65 to hold back Johnson and Denny Hamlin, while Earnhardt became the new lead car up top.

Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne were the next ones to fall one lap down around Lap 67, but with Hamlin directly behind him, Busch settled in as he tried to become the potential beneficiary for the free pass.

Shortly afterwards, Kenseth got hung out on the high line and fell out of the Top 10, allowing Johnson to take control. Once again, the leaders went into single-file formation ahead of another wave of stops.

Kenseth was able to cut his way back to the lead on the low line and was able to catch the draft from Johnson to return to the Top 5 close to Lap 80. On Lap 78, the long green-flag run ended with a multi-car incident on the frontstretch as Marcos Ambrose lost control of his car while moving to the high line and then skidded down the track and into the side of Juan Pablo Montoya.

With Kyle Busch earning the free pass as a result, the pits opened for the leaders. Earnhardt led the pack into pit road, but came out behind Johnson and Kenseth, who, like Earnhardt, took two tires.

The green came back out at Lap 84, and Earnhardt quickly stuck his nose to Johnson’s bumper, pushing him past Kenseth for the lead. But Kenseth would not go away and used the high line to pass Johnson back before dropping low to clear him.

He wouldn’t hold that lead for long as Johnson and Earnhardt teamed up yet again to pull ahead on the inside line by Lap 88. The two were still up toward the front at the halfway point, but Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola were starting to make noise against them on the inside…

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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