Jeff Gordon hopes to keep Chase pressure on at Texas

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Even though Jeff Gordon kept his bid for a fifth Sprint Cup championship alive with a victory last weekend at Martinsville Speedway, he still needs some help to truly turn the Chase into a three-horse race.

Gordon did what he had to do, but so did the two competitors he’s looking up at in the standings, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. A runner-up for Kenseth and a fifth for Johnson at Martinsville kept Gordon from making a serious points move; he sits in third place, 27 points behind the deadlocked Kenseth and Johnson going into Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

With three races left in the 2013 season, every mistake made will now become magnified. But Gordon isn’t hoping for trouble to befall his title rivals. Instead, he’s sticking to the game plan.

“We’ve got to try to put pressure on them and put fast race cars out there to do that and then see what the results are after each race,” Gordon said Friday at TMS before qualifying eighth for Sunday’s race.

“Even last week, we win the race and we really didn’t really gain that much on those guys. They’re very solid teams, solid drivers, and they run good everywhere. And I expect them to run good these three remaining races as well.”

Gordon figures he’ll need to be within “10 or 12 points” of the lead going into the Nov. 17 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to think of himself as a contender.

But while he’ll push hard to make legitimate gains on Kenseth and Johnson at Texas and Phoenix (Nov. 10) before closing the season in South Florida, he’s been in the sport long enough to know that he can’t push too hard.

To Gordon, it all comes down to knowing the limits.

“In my experience over the years, most of the times when you try too hard, you fail,” he said. “You’ve got to push yourself within the limits of the car and within the limits of yourself…As we all know, every green flag pit stop and entry on to pit road, every restart and every lap is so crucial that it’s all about being calm.”

“That’s the thing that I think separates the top five or six teams from the others that are out there right now is that those teams all have quite a bit of confidence in what they’re doing.”

Ever since being bestowed a Chase spot by NASCAR following September’s race manipulation incident at Richmond, Gordon’s confidence, as well as his team’s confidence, has grown. They’ve been able to stay consistent and last weekend, they got the win they needed.

And thus, they’re still in the championship conversation.

“We’re just proud to be where we’re at and we just hope that we can keep that up,” he said.

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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