Baron, Celis, Telitz lead Road to Indy Barber test

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The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test at Barber Motorsports Park is in the books for all of Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000. This test marked the first time all three series ran together while on Cooper Tires, as Indy Lights makes the switch this offseason ahead of 2014, and all under the Andersen Promotions umbrella.

As he did on his USF2000 debut in Monterey, when he won in his first start at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Frenchman Alexandre Baron led the timesheets in Indy Lights with a best lap of 1:15.726. Andretti Autosport teammates Zach Veach (1:16.026) and Matthew Brabham (1:16.234) were next up over the times combined from two days. Four other drivers tested.

Baron (pictured) will drive for Belardi Auto Racing in Indy Lights in 2014; he won two of his four USF2000 starts this season. And no, he’s not the same driver as 1997 Formula Atlantic champion Alex Barron, who drove portions of nine seasons between IndyCar and CART.

In Pro Mazda, Mexican rookie Alfonso Celis upset the regulars with a best lap of 1:20.490 driving for Juncos Racing. One-time race winners in 2013, Shelby Blackstock (Andretti) and Spencer Pigot (Juncos) were next up at 1:20.698 and 1:21.034, respectively. Neither Celis nor Pigot has a confirmed deal yet for 2014, while Blackstock, son of country music star Reba McIntyre, will lead Andretti’s Pro Mazda effort in his second season.

The two who dueled for the USF2000 championship in 2013, Scott Hargrove and Neil Alberico of Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, clocked in 11th and 12th of the 18 testing.

Skip Barber Race Series Scholarship Shootout winner Aaron Telitz led the USF2000 field in testing driving for Afterburner Autosport, with a best lap of 1:23.283. Cape’s USF2000 driver, Jake Eidson, was second at 1:23.381 with one of Belardi’s four confirmed drivers, Nico Jamin, third at 1:23.598. 20 drivers tested for seven teams in USF2000.

Cold temperatures means this won’t be a great foreshadowing of the spring, when Indy Lights races there in April, but might be a good forecast for the Cooper Tire Winterfest for the races at Barber on February 25-26, 2014. The Winterfest will also be held at NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans Feb. 21-22.

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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