Daytona, Pomona kick off two more racing seasons this February

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American football season is officially over with the Seattle Seahawks’ smackdown of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII last night.

Which means that next up in the sporting calendar is the start of two racing seasons, NASCAR’s and the NHRA’s.

Daytona Speedweeks and the Circle K Pomona Winternationals are February’s racing highlights, although testing for other series is still ongoing this month.

Here’s what’s on tap for the racing month of February (see January’s “on tap” here):

  • Daytona Speedweeks: From Feb. 14 through Feb. 23, 10 days of practice, qualifying and racing culminating with the Daytona 500 on the 23rd. NASCAR’s Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, the ARCA opener and the preseason Sprint Unlimited and Budweiser Duel Sprint Cup events will take place. For the Daytona 500, there will be several new team/driver combination debuts, and also the much-heralded return of the No. 3 to a Sprint Cup race with rookie Austin Dillon.
  • NHRA’s West Coast doubleheader: The traditional first two weekends of the drag racing season commence at Pomona (Feb. 6-9) and Phoenix (Feb. 21-23). At the season opener, Courtney Force seeks to defend her Funny Car race win and father John begins another season long title defense. It’s a big year for JFR as a whole; the team enters its last year with Fords and Castrol, two flagship brands associated with the Force family for nearly 30 years.
  • F1’s Bahrain testing double: There wasn’t a ton of running for the contingent of Formula One teams at their first test in Jerez last week; teams spent time sorting out some initial mechanical issues with their new chassis and new powerplants. Heavier running should occur at both February tests in Bahrain; the first is from Feb. 19-22, with the second Feb. 27-March 2. Lotus, which missed the Jerez test, is the only team yet to run its new chassis.
  • More IndyCar testing: A mix of Florida and California tests for the IndyCar Series are on tap. Additionally, the series will hold its preseason Media Day in Orlando on Feb. 18. The series still has a handful of full-season seats to fill as we enter the final two months before its season opener in St. Petersburg at the end of March – there was little movement on the driver front in January.
  • Winter Series: There’s two “winter series” of note. The new four-race Florida Winter Series runs from Feb. 3-5 at Palm Beach, Feb. 12-14 and Feb. 17-19 at Homestead. Meanwhile the Cooper Tires Winterfest Championship takes place for all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. Doubleheader Pro Mazda races and tripleheader USF2000 races will occur Feb. 21-22 at NOLA Motorsports Park and Feb. 25-26 at Barber Motorsports Park, respectively; Indy Lights will have testing all four days as well.
  • Elsewhere: The TUDOR United SportsCar Championship tests at Sebring Feb. 20-21, in what will be another test of Balance of Performance for DP and P2 cars … FIA World Rally Championship has its second event of the season this weekend, Rally Sweden in the snow Feb. 5-8 … one endurance race of note is on tap, with the Liqui Moly Bathurst 12 Hour race for production and GT cars Feb. 7-9 … we figure there will be more Pirelli World Challenge team and driver announcements across its field.

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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