Rusty Wallace all smiles after “one more round” at Daytona

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For the first time since the 2005 season finale at Homestead-Miami, former Sprint Cup champion Rusty Wallace drove the familiar No. 2 Miller Lite Team Penske Ford during today’s Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona International Speedway.

Fittingly, he didn’t take the Deuce around for a single, slow cruise. Wallace, now working as a NASCAR television analyst, got in several runs this afternoon in the car that now belongs to fellow former Cup champ Brad Keselowski.

Per Jeff Wackerlin of MRN Radio, Wallace topped out with a lap at 192.102 mph in qualifying setup on his final run of the day – good enough for fourth on the overall chart at the time. Not too shabby.

“I really wanted to get back in the car and get a good feel for this Gen-6 car here at Daytona,” a smiling Wallace told Fox Sports. “Not only did they let me run a couple of times, they ran me for most of the day. The car is fantastic – it was real smooth and nice, and the crew was kind. I hope I helped them a little bit, you know, with a lot of feedback.”

Standing next to Wallace was Keselowski, who had noted earlier during Fox’s telecast that Wallace raced against his father and that he himself had worn a “Rusty shirt” in his fourth-grade school picture.

Like Wallace, Keselowski was tickled over the event.

“It means a lot to me,” he said. “Rusty is probably the reason why Miller Lite and Penske stayed together  and got to the point to where I’d have this opportunity. I’d like to think I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for guys like Rusty and, specifically, what he did for the No. 2 team.

“This is our way of showing the honor and respect back, and it’s so important. We’ve got a lot of people that make this program possible, and Rusty is certainly one of them. He was such a large part of it, but we want to show respect back to them. We were able to do that with Rusty. It was my pleasure.”

Wallace won the 1989 Cup championship in the No. 27 car for Blue Max Racing, but it’s his No. 2 Miller-backed ride that may be his most well-known. He brought the Miller sponsorship to Team Penske in 1991, and Wallace wound up earning 39 victories for Penske while bearing the beer giant’s colors.

As for whether Wallace might like to do more testing in the future, he told Fox that restrictor plate tracks would be “no problem” but that he’d “need some more reps to get that courage back up” for other tracks.

“Trying to hold this Blue Deuce wide open at, say, Charlotte or Vegas – that might be above my pay grade at the moment,” 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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